For a few days now I’ve been mulling a line in President Obama’s inaugural address: “We must act, knowing that our work will be imperfect.” Oddly, I find myself pulled more towards the second part than the first.
I don’t have a constituent who wouldn’t agree that we must act, to spur the economy, address our debt, improve our immigration policies, reduce gun violence, and so on. The trick, of course, is to accept the second part. In a country as diverse, dynamic and challenged as our own, we will never govern in a way that achieves anyone’s version of perfection. And we probably shouldn’t try.
We live in the freest and most prosperous country in the world. But as the president pointed out, the full breadth of freedom is compromised for someone who is needlessly ill or grievously undereducated. As the president reminded us in his inaugural address, “That is our generation’s task — to make these words, these rights, these values of life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness real for every American.” We will, of course, have different ideas on how best to do that. And that’s OK.
What is not OK is to demand that one set of ideas be fully accepted, or else. We rightly celebrate those who stand on principle. But, to govern is to compromise. I recently participated in an event sponsored by an organization called No Labels. By bringing Republicans and Democrats together in constructive discussion, No Labels seek to ease the gridlock in Congress and create an environment where we can negotiate in an atmosphere of trust.
We saw a glimmer of hope this week when the House temporarily raised the nation’s debt limit and ruled that Congress would not be paid if a budget is not passed. I voted yes, and offer half a cheer. Our economy was not endangered by debt limit hostage taking, and it appears that the Senate may finally work to pass a budget. But imperfect it was, and hence half a cheer: the debt ceiling will be back in May, and the real work of spurring the economy and stabilizing our long term fiscal future remains.
In the coming months, we will face the debt limit again, another fiscal cliff, and the threat of a government shutdown. The public rightfully demands action on new gun violence prevention strategies, a fairer and more efficient tax code, immigration reform, and many other issues, all of which lend themselves to emotion, demagoguery and the false hope of a perfect solution. Or better put, competing versions of perfect solutions.
Inaugurations are new beginnings, and they happen amidst rituals that ask us to momentarily suspend our differences in favor of our common heritage, values and beliefs. We will soon be recaptured by our differences, as we should be. There’s a marketplace for ideas, after all. But we’re well advised to remember that none of us sells perfection.
The writer is Fourth District congressman. The Ridgefield Democratic Town Committee supplies this column.