Leaders Needed

President Obama looked properly chastened, even shaken, the day after this month’s elections provided such a stunning rebuke to his administration.

And congressional Republican leaders who engineered the dramatic turnaround from their losses two years ago were predictably trumpeting their return to some measure of power.

What neither side offered to businesses that had so much at stake in this election, however, was any true leadership or even signal of substance about what comes next, about what governing will look like. There was little from either side offering the certainty and stability that business said was central to this election.

Instead, asked about the prospects for contentious legislation such as cap-and-trade, the president displayed the kind of fecklessness his critics deride and even many supporters concede can be dispiriting.

“Cap-and-trade was just one way of skinning the cat,” he told reporters. “It was not the only way . . . It was a means, not an end. And I’m going to be looking for other means to address this problem.”

House Democrats who in 2009 voted for cap-and-trade and who later lost re-election bids would like to have known back then that a provision so many transportation businesses revile is so disposable. Some might have hesitated to put their political careers on the line for something so casually tossed off as “a means, not an end.”

But the party politics are just a small piece of that issue. In fact, the president in this energy legislation was asking business and the country to take a bold step, to act for a greater good and to make the world a better place. But that was the end, not the means. If there are means other than cap-and-trade, methods that businesses can execute and incentives that companies can use to get to that better place, the president should have brought business in, listened to them about what has been done and what can be done and used the bully pulpit the White House provides to build support for what he truly believes is important rather than to check off an empty legislative victory.

It’s no better on the other side of the partisan chasm in Washington.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said before the election and again after, “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”

Although hardly a startling revelation, that can’t be reassuring to a business community that might have hoped the stability they want in Washington would be the result of wisdom and not gridlock under bare-knuckled political partisanship.

What that gridlock means is that there will be precious little governing in the larger sense coming from Washington over the next two years, at least. The real activity will fall further out of view, with states and cities carving out actions in the absence of a broader national strategy.

And although legislation on regulatory reform is dead, ocean carriers still will have to contend with an active-minded Federal Maritime Commission, while railroads and their customers will battle over changing rules at the Surface Transportation Board.

Sometimes governing just can’t wait for the next election.

Paul Page is executive director of The Journal of Commerce. He can be contacted at 202-355-1170, or at ppage@joc.com. Follow Paul Page on Twitter, www.twitter.com/paulpage.

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