The midterm elections are the battle, but the real challenge for elected officials begins the night of Nov. 2, when both the White House and the ascendant Republican leaders step onto the stage to define themselves for the American people. Neither side will emerge from the campaign in a particularly strong position: Barack Obama has lost ground all year, and Republicans will snatch up dozens of seats despite rather than because of their standing with the electorate.
In order to help move the country forward, both sides must first gain control of their tattered public images. Bill Clinton survived and then thrived after the GOP's 1994 midterms landslide by re-engineering his persona, shifting to the center, transcending both parties and portraying Newt Gingrich and Co. as the love children of Ebenezer Scrooge and Monty Burns. But the nation also got a balanced budget and welfare reform in the bargain.
The best outcome for the country now is for both sides to regroup, build themselves up, engage in the requisite jousting and then come together to address America's problems. The alternative is mutual political weakness and two years of gridlock.
Starting with their first public statements on Tuesday and Wednesday, here is what the President and Republican big shots, such as likely Speaker-to-be John Boehner, Republican leader Mitch McConnell, Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour and Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele, must accomplish to present themselves to best advantage and plot the course for the next two years.
He needs to show that he gets it, that Job No. 1 is bringing back American jobs and that his Administration will be committed to that aim in 2011.
He needs to articulate his specific ideas for deficit reduction and state that he looks forward to hearing proposals from Republicans, who made spending cuts the centerpiece of their campaign.
He needs to express a good-natured sense of humor about the election results and mean it. Tart jokes, bitter digs and backhanded compliments will be unattractive and obvious from 3,000 miles away.
He needs to recognize that, busy as he is, he must make time for clear, compassionate and consistent communication with the American people without giving off an air of irritability or the impression that he has better things to do.
He needs to show some love or at least sincere respect for Republican leaders (including governors), Democratic leaders (including those who have let him down) and business people (including those who don't like or trust him).
Most of all, Obama needs to define himself as an optimistic, postpartisan, sophisticated-but-not-snobby man of action, who understands the causes and ramifications of the midterms results and will focus relentlessly on the healthy future of the country.
They need to take some risks and show leadership on spending cuts.
They need to prove that they are willing to work with the President and that, as patriots, they respect his role as leader of the country.
They need to present a face that is not all white and male, and detail some specific policies that are intended to help working- and middle-class Americans deal with their current problems.
They need to make sure that their party is not defined by the most inexperienced and extreme new GOP members of Congress.
They need to make change more than a campaign slogan, but rather the animating principle of how they govern, how they deal with special interests and how they communicate with the American people.
Most of all, they need to define themselves as serious, humane problem solvers who care more about addressing America's challenges than ... anything else, including and especially the power of politics.
One Nation, Halperin's politics column for TIME.com, appears every Monday.