With apologies to that great Chicago philosopher Rahm Emanuel, euphoria is a terrible thing to waste. And so Barack Obama, fresh from bagging Public Enemy No. 1, has a fresh opportunity to do even greater things for America.
The man who won a Nobel Peace Prize he didn't deserve has now earned it in the most unlikely fashion. The killing of Usama bin Laden is the single most important moment both of Obama's presidency and the long, bloody war on terror. For authorizing the daring mission, the commander-in-chief roundly deserves the hero's welcome he will get at Ground Zero and everywhere else he goes.
Yet national gratitude will be fleeting unless Obama builds on it in a nonpartisan way to revive his presidency. The temptations about how he should spend his windfall of political capital will be many, but my hope is that he rededicates himself to the fundamental promise of his historic election: to unite the nation.
He did it this time by keeping faith with the unanimous national desire to bring bin Laden to justice. Now he must extend that sense of comity to the economy and other domestic issues.
His vision of "no red states or blues states, only United States" was the hope of millions who pulled the lever or punched the chad for him despite reservations about his age, inexperience and troubling associates. Because he used the recession as an excuse to push through huge liberal programs on partisan votes, he lost Congress, and hopes of unity were dashed. The country today -- or at least the country pre-Sunday -- was as polarized as ever.
Indeed, hopelessness is on the rise. Recent polls show that upward of 70 percent of the public believes the country is on the wrong track in terms of deficits and the economy, and concern about the future has reached a high point under Obama.
For the moment, all that has been obscured by the success of the bin Laden mission. The challenge is for Obama to seize this second chance to get his presidency back in the good graces of the political center and keep it there.
There is evidence he realizes the gravity and opportunity of the moment.
Speaking at a bipartisan congressional dinner Monday, Obama allowed that "we've all had disagreements and differences in the past" and "I suspect we'll have them again in the future."
But he believes the demise of bin Laden is giving America "the same sense of unity that prevailed on 9/11. We were reminded again that there is a pride in what this nation stands for, and what we can achieve, that runs far deeper than party, far deeper than politics."
He is right, but euphoria always proves no match for life's everyday events. For too many people, that means joblessness, soaring gas prices and, above all, a growing fear that America's best days are behind it.
Bitter partisan battles have made those fears worse by creating doubts the nation can pull together to tackle its problems. That is the chief reason why Obama' re-election is in danger. He failed to lead the nation above and beyond those differences.
There is no guarantee he can recapture the magic of the past, no matter what he does. The problems are vast and Republicans who want his job are not likely to go easy on him for more than a few days.That is why he needs to move fast and not waste this moment of national unity. He can start by challenging himself to set an example of putting America ahead of party when it comes to the urgent debates ahead. No more demonizing of dissent, and no more putting off big decisions on entitlements. Work for bipartisan consensus, not ideology or advantage.
If he does all that, he won't have to worry about his place in history, or those who want his job.