Clift: Obama Sets Tone with Lieberman Decision

Lieberman lucked out. In any other election cycle, he'd be doomed. It wasn't so much that the former Democratic and now independent senator from Connecticut supported John McCain. That was forgivable. But blasting Barack Obama at the Republican convention was crossing a bridge too far, a bridge to nowhere. Right after the election, it looked like good ole Joe would be getting his pink slip as chairman of the Senate homeland-security committee. But word went out from Chicago that the president-elect was not interested in recriminations, and the lions laid down with the lambs, and Sen. Joe Lieberman was once again back in the good graces of his fellow Democrats.

There's been a lot of partisan bickering about the war in Iraq, but as Obama seeks to build new coalitions in Congress on contentious issues like climate change, immigration reform and energy independence, Lieberman and McCain could turn out to be valuable allies. Fellow Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd, making the case for Lieberman keeping his chairmanship, reminded Democrats in a closed-door session that Lieberman had gone to Mississippi in 1963 to register African-American voters, and even though he supported McCain, Obama's election is a significant moment for him, as it is for many millions of Americans.

A CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll found that 75 percent of Americans think Obama will be a good, even great president, far more than the 53 percent who voted for him. Those citizens may be responding in part to Obama's election-night victory speech quoting Abraham Lincoln: "We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break the bonds of our affection."

Obama has no patience for the ideological battles that have dominated our politics in recent decades. He won 60 percent of moderate voters, the highest share of that prized group since Richard Nixon's landslide re-election against George McGovern in '72. Democrats are once again a national party, and Obama can legitimately claim a mandate to govern. That's the good news; the bad news is that trust in government as measured in October was 17 percent, the lowest ever recorded in The New York Times/CBS News poll. "Skepticism is in the DNA of the American people. We were born in revolution and a lack of trust in King George," says Elaine Kamarck, coauthor with William Galston of a paper titled, "Change You Can Believe In Needs a Government You Can Trust."

The academic duo presented their findings at a Tuesday breakfast in the Washington offices of Third Way, a centrist Democratic group. Introducing them, Third Way's policy director, Jim Kessler, said the significant decline in trust, if not addressed, "has the potential to drown the progressive agenda in a sea of skepticism." Kamarck used a term borrowed from arms-control negotiators in calling for "confidence-building measures" to rebuild trust. She singled out legislation sponsored by Sens. James Webb and Claire McCaskill and passed by Congress earlier this year to create a Commission on War Contracting Accountability. She urged Obama to "take ownership" of the commission and go after war-related fraud and abuse, which sticks in the voters' craw every bit as much as those golden parachutes on Wall Street.

Obama campaigned on energy independence, stepping up investments in public infrastructure, increased focus on reforming education and making the turn to universal health care as fast as possible. Campaign promises are like promissory notes, and they're essential to rebuilding trust in government, says Galston, who was a domestic policy adviser in the Clinton administration. He vividly remembers writing out Clinton's campaign promises and pinning them up over his desk. They included a middle-class tax cut that Clinton failed to deliver. Galston, who is now at the Brookings Institution, is ambivalent about the merits of Obama's proposed tax cut, but says, "He will pay a huge price if he does not fulfill his promise."

The desire to have government do more was expressed in the '92 election but collapsed 12 months after Clinton took office and didn't emerge until after 9/11. George W. Bush campaigned as "a uniter and not a divider," but he squandered the opportunity to bring the country together. Trust in government jumped in the wake of the 9/11 attacks as Americans turned to Washington to keep them safe, but after a few months it was gone and skepticism was back. There is a similar spike today in the willingness of voters to view government as part of the solution, as opposed to part of the problem. Galston says the meltdown of the financial industry is the equivalent of an "economic 9/11," a problem the people want government to solve, and that within broad limits, the voters have given Obama the authority to be bold and innovative and expansive to address the economic crisis.

But Galston warns that other promises, like closing Guantanamo and withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq may not be as popular with the center of the electorate as with the Democratic base. But it is still important for Obama to keep his word. "And if Iraq goes south after U.S. troops leave, he should give a speech that says if stability in Iraq means a permanent American presence of 150,000 troops, it's not worth it," says Galston, a declaration that illustrates the peril ahead and underscores why Obama needs the broadest possible coalition behind the agenda he was elected to fulfill.