The next president's biggest challenge will be putting the nation's long-term finances on sounder footing. The failure to do so is the major shortcoming of President Obama's first term. How he analyzes that failure, and how he would hope to do better in a second term, are key topics for the rest of the campaign.
Mr. Obama took office amid a financial crisis that demanded emergency measures, not attention to long-term debt. After he responded with a stimulus bill, he then chose to put his political capital into a bill that was intended to extend health insurance to millions of Americans and to begin to control health-care costs.
He pledged during the fight over that bill to pivot afterward to promoting fiscal soundness. But that never happened, as proposed compromises with Republicans in Congress dissolved in acrimony.
This week, Obama senior adviser Valerie Jarrett blamed Washington gridlock on Republican intransigence. She said Mr. Obama's failure was in not sufficiently enlisting public opinion to pressure GOP lawmakers, whose positions, she said, "ignored their constituents."
New York Sen. Charles Schumer, a leader of the Democrats, agreed that Mr. Obama had put too much energy into seeking compromise with Republicans. In a second term, Mr. Schumer said, the President "will go to the public more."
If these statements reflect Mr. Obama's plans, we worry about the chances of greater accomplishment in the second term than in the first. Republicans' bullheadedness, particularly in their doctrinaire opposition to revenue increases, has been a major obstacle to progress. If Mr. Obama wins, a crucial question will be whether defeat nudges Republicans to moderate their positions, or whether they decide that nominee Mitt Romney was not ideological enough.
But Mr. Obama wasn't faultless. Even when conservative Republicans such as Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma signaled a willingness to deal, the President failed to show the leadership that might have made something happen.
Most members of Congress, thanks to skewed redistricting and voter self-sorting, live in safe districts. They are reasonably immune to pressure from the opposing party -- and more fearful of a primary challenge from their party's flank.
And the nation's voters are divided. A "mandate election" is unlikely, because neither party enjoys a clear advantage.
Any solution to the fiscal crisis is going to require compromise. No matter who is in charge, taxes will have to go up and entitlements will have to be scaled back. The math doesn't work any other way.
These aren't the kind of reforms that lend themselves to populist, call-your-congressman campaigns. They will be politically unpopular, and can be executed only if Republicans and Democrats hold hands and jump together.
A public campaign could be helpful, if it's designed to educate voters about why the nation's future depends on painful trade-offs. But the will and fortitude to make those trade-offs will matter more.
-- Washington Post