Arguably the best speech of an acrimonious campaign season that was far too long and far too expensive was given by Mitt Romney in the early morning hours of Nov. 7. It was a speech he had hoped he would not have to give. He began, "I have just called President Obama to congratulate him on his victory. His supporters and his campaign also deserve congratulations. I wish all of them well, but particularly the president, the first lady and their daughters. This is a time of great challenges for America, and I pray that the president will be successful in guiding our nation."
After thanking his family, campaign workers and supporters, he continued, "The nation, as you know, is at a critical point. At a time like this we can't risk partisan bickering and political posturing. Our leaders have to reach across the aisle to do the people's work. And we citizens also have to rise to the occasion."
With these simple but eloquent words, delivered with clarity and grace, Mr. Romney set the tone for the coming days, weeks and months -- days, weeks and months during which the future of our country hinges on the ability of our leaders to address the fiscal crisis and other problems facing our nation.
It is easy to be a leader when victorious. It is far more difficult to be a leader amidst defeat. By exercising strong leadership amidst defeat, Mr. Romney has demonstrated strength of character.
With Mr. Romney having set the tone, House Speaker John Boehner, who has often been the most partisan of the partisan, extended his congratulations to Mr. Obama, observing, "Mr. President, this is your moment. We want you to lead."
Mr. Boehner offered to work with Mr. Obama to hammer out a budget deal that would include revenue increases resulting from tax reform, provided it was a balanced approach that would also include spending cuts and address government-funded social benefit programs. "Let's find the common ground that has eluded us," Mr. Boehner stated. "We're closer than we think to the critical mass needed legislatively to get tax reform done."
As did President Obama and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie when they visited areas devastated by Hurricane Sandy, Mr. Romney and Mr. Boehner recognize that we are first and foremost Americans -- not Republicans, Democrats or members of any other political party, but Americans. There are some things that are so important, so urgent, that they transcend partisan differences.
This is not to suggest that Mr. Obama and Mr. Boehner are going to see eye-to-eye on everything.They have different views and perspectives to bring to the table. There will need to be give-and-take, with each getting some of what he would ideally like to have while letting go of some of what is on his agenda. But if both proceed in good faith, these differences can be worked out.
Any budget agreement is going to be harshly criticized by those unwilling to see the broader picture. Liberals will be unhappy with reductions in spending for social programs.
Conservatives will be similarly unhappy with tax reform that increases revenues. The reality, however, is that when power is not held exclusively by one party (and I happen to believe that divided government can be a good thing), neither party is going to get everything it wants. Working together becomes a necessity if anything is to be accomplished.
We don't know yet if the willingness of Mr. Boehner and Mr. Obama to work together will withstand the test of time. We do know, however, that as the CEOs who signed the letter to which reference was made in last week's column put it, "America has always been able to tackle its greatest challenges -- we are confident we can rise to the occasion again."
I share that optimism. And if Mr. Romney's gracious and thoughtful remarks help set the stage for working together to tackle the problems facing us, he will have contributed significantly to the well-being of our country.
Dan Lee teaches ethics at Augustana College; firstname.lastname@example.org.