"We're all in this together," President Obama said on election night. "That's how we campaigned."
A week later, responding to noise and squabbles about the word "mandate," Obama responded: "I've got one mandate. I've got a mandate to help middle-class families and families that are working hard to try to get into the middle class. That's my mandate."
Let's put this in context. In 2004, George W. Bush claimed voters had given him "political capital" that he was "going to spend." President Obama surpassed -- by a lot -- his predecessor in both the popular and electoral vote count. If Bush had a "mandate," so does Obama. But Obama now faces a lame-duck session of Congress that acts as if the election never happened.
Rarely in history has a lame-duck Congress been so lame as the one that's leaving now. This Congress -- many of whose members won't return -- did less than Harry Truman's infamous "Do Nothing Congress" of 1947-1949. This Congress couldn't agree on anything, even failing to pass a cybersecurity bill essential to the nation's security. The very first vote of the lame-duck senators was to reject the same bill for a second time -- along partisan lines.
The loser of the 2008 election, Sen. John McCain, was back front and center. In sharply partisan language, he called for the appointment of a "super committee" to investigate the deaths of four brave Americans in Libya, including our ambassador. An old soldier and patriot, McCain seems to have forgotten the blame lies with the radical Muslims who conducted a surprise attack on our consulate. Congress is careening toward a so-called fiscal cliff. Why would McCain choose partisanship, especially when a bipartisan investigation by highly regarded security experts is still forming its conclusions?
Habit, perhaps. Old habits die hard. This lame-duck Congress just can't seem to break its knee-jerk partisanship. It's a failing that those who were re-elected may have to account for in the 2014 congressional elections. NBC news quoted Democratic Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, who won a second term last Tuesday, as saying, "The main message I heard throughout the state ... is they expect folks to go back to Washington and work together -- I heard that over and over again."
The president agrees. Obama struck a moderate tone in his press conference, claiming his only mandate was to help the middle class. He avoided chest-beating and any "my way or the highway" talk. The president said he was open to compromise and new ideas. He also suggested that Mitt Romney might help come up with some good ideas for fiscal growth.
Indeed, the president, who spent the week reaching out to labor leaders, the business community and others, is eager to find common-sense solutions to resolve our nation's fiscal crisis.
"So we've got a clear majority of the American people who recognize if we're going to be serious about deficit reduction, we've got to do it in a balanced way," Obama explained.
True words. Exit polls show a majority of voters (60 percent, including both Democrats and Republicans) agree with Obama. They favor a balanced approach to reducing the national deficit -- one that includes both spending cuts and raising tax rates and revenues from wealthy taxpayers.
Though voters hunger for bipartisan solutions and cooperation, Obama's biggest hurdle may be to change the atmosphere. Outgoing Republican Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts grieved the loss of moderates who made compromise possible. Given his voting record, Brown himself probably doesn't qualify as one. But he's right. Moderate senators like Olympia Snowe, Joe Lieberman, Richard Lugar and Kent Conrad have either retired or lost bids for re-election.
Polling reveals a yearning for Congress to cooperate and address our urgent national needs, but also an increasingly partisan division, even among the wealthy. The voters can't have it both ways.
The increased polarization results, I believe, from a Republican strategy that hasn't changed in four years, namely conducting an unrelenting assault on Obama as being 100 percent wrong all the time. Republican leaders have more excuses than a teenager for their refusal to reach any compromise. As the election shows, though, they ignore at their peril Obama's mandate to help restore the middle class.
The pace of change may be moderate, but it will be change that folks can believe in and get behind. We will have to be patient and we -- all of us -- will have to remain engaged, calling on our lawmakers to work together.
The president has a mandate -- one he will use for the common good. The press and the public need to keep their focus on the moderate change Obama is seeking, and not be distracted by partisan red-herring investigations or salacious sex scandals that will only weaken our unity.
Donna Brazile is a senior Democratic strategist, a political commentator and contributor to CNN and ABC News, and a contributing columnist.