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How America’s next president should deal with Washington’s dysfunction

November 2, 2015, 7:06 PM UTC
WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 31:, on Capitol Hill, on December 31, 2012 in Washington, DC. The House and Senate are both still in session on New Year's Eve to try to deal with the looming 'fiscal cliff.' issue. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 31: , on Capitol Hill, on December 31, 2012 in Washington, DC. The House and Senate are both still in session on New Year's Eve to try to deal with the looming 'fiscal cliff.' issue. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Drew Angerer 2012 Getty Images

In an unlikely last act of bipartisan governance, Speaker of the House John Boehner worked with the White House to strike a budget deal last week. While his successor played “good cop” to the Tea Party caucus, the compromise actually revealed the auspicious reality of a “lame duck.”

Most Democrats and Republicans alike agree that President Barack Obama has governed more aggressively since his second oath of office. To progressives, it is a mandate he achieved through his reelection. While second terms are historically predisposed to scandal, it’s a myth that a term-constrained presidency is powerless.

In fact, a modern-day profile in courage would be to pledge a one-term administration dedicated to fulfilling the promise of bipartisan coalition-building that President Obama heralded during his 2008 campaign for the White House.

If a presidential candidate were to pledge one term, he or she would forgo an obsession with the next campaign – the prime obstacle to consensus that is increasingly framed around demonizing opponents.

It is an unconventional move that Vice President Joe Biden was reportedly considering as a cornerstone of his would-be campaign. But the Democratic frontrunner, in particular, as well as the Republican hopefuls, would be smart to take note.

Right now, a second term does not appear a political eventuality that Hillary Clinton would concede. In the verse of her pop surrogate Katy Perry, the Clinton campaign is soaring.

Clinton’s superior debate performance and the endurance she demonstrated at the Benghazi hearing, along with Biden’s decision not to run, renewed Democrats’ confidence in her ability to overcome Republican-led efforts to destroy her candidacy.

Though it’s not clear to all Democrats that Clinton’s alignment with contemporary progressivism is entirely genuine – most of whom acknowledge her challenger Sen. Bernie Sander’s critique of the party’s 1990s economic policies allowing future conditions of inequality – Clinton appears on the precipice of locking the nomination.

As she veers from the primary to general election contest, Clinton’s toughest obstacle as evidenced in public opinion surveys, will be to win over skeptics who view her candidacy through the prism of political opportunism – or are concerned about continued one-family rule.

“I am not running for President Obama or President Clinton’s third term, but for my first,” she said recently at the Iowa Democrats’ Jefferson Jackson dinner and reiterated on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert. She added she is going to “do what works.”

If Clinton indeed wants to prove her pragmatic progressive bona fides and ability to “get things done” in a polarized political climate, a single term pledge could be a winning proposition – and will show her willingness to buck political triangulation for the common good.

To date, no journalists have asked Clinton or her Democratic or Republican counterparts if they would consider such a pledge, but the next debates provide an appropriate opportunity.

There is an argument that the focus on one-term is misplaced. How can corruption, dark money, gerrymandering – name a graver threat to our democracy – be uprooted in a single four-year term?

It’s true that repairing D.C. dysfunction is a long haul, but unless a president leads by example — through governing instead of campaigning – Congress will not follow in kind and reform itself.

Alexander Heffner hosts “The Open Mind” on PBS stations and is the Fitzwater Fellow at Franklin Pierce University.