The White House, Democrats, and sympathetic elements of the media have been remarkably successful in establishing this idea: that President Obama, a pragmatist at heart, has sought to accommodate congressional Republicans time after time, only to be spurned by a party bent on rejecting his policies across the board. There’s a problem with this notion. It’s not true.
For sure, Obama and Republicans are far apart ideologically, so much so there probably was no chance of reaching a compromise on health care legislation. But they might have cooperated on the economic stimulus package enacted in 2009 and on a number of smaller issues. Except then and now, Obama has shown little or no interest in taking GOP proposals, alternatives, or tweaks seriously, or even considering them at all.
Since announcing his bid for reelection, Obama has adopted the practice of unveiling a set of proposals ostensibly to create jobs and demanding it be passed pronto, without Republicans having been consulted or informed. He did this last September with a “jobs bill” and last week in Albany, New York, with what he called a “to-do list” of hiring and housing initiatives.
The first opportunity for a bipartisan compromise between the White House and Republicans involved the stimulus. House GOP leaders John Boehner and Eric Cantor met twice with Obama in January 2009, once when he was president-elect, then shortly after he was inaugurated. Republicans had suffered two straight landslide defeats, putting Boehner and Cantor in a weakened position.
But they gave Obama a one-page “House Republican Economic Recovery Plan” at the second session with five suggestions: a tax rate cut for lower income families, another for small businesses, spending cuts to pay for stimulus, an end to taxation of unemployment benefits, and a homebuyers credit. The president said none of the suggestions looked “crazy.”
That was the last the Republican leaders heard from Obama until after House speaker Nancy Pelosi and Dave Obey, the since-retired chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, had drafted the official Democratic stimulus bill—without a smidgen of Republican input. Meanwhile, Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell sent three “alternatives” to Obama, including loans rather than grants to states in fiscal trouble and a reduction in the tax rate on individual income from 25 percent to 15 percent. McConnell got no response.
The day after Pelosi and Obey finalized their bill, Obama appeared before a gathering of all House Republicans, urging them to consider his ideas for reviving the economy. A few days later, he attacked Republicans for rejecting those ideas by opposing the stimulus. But his ideas were part of a partisan bill that was already a done deal when he offered it to them. It passed the House with no Republican votes.
From this experience, GOP congressional leaders concluded their relationship with the president was going to be “difficult,” a Republican leadership aide said. And it has been. The only breakthrough occurred when Obama agreed to spending cuts last year at a time when blocking them would have been politically risky.
On stiffening regulation of the financial industry, the White House made no overtures to the House. But in 2010, Chris Dodd, then chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, conducted weeks of negotiations over a bipartisan bill with freshman Republican senator Bob Corker of Tennessee. “Dodd and Corker eventually found middle ground on nearly every issue,” the Washington Post reported.
Both the White House and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner worried the bill wouldn’t attract Republicans besides Corker—a not entirely unreasonable fear. But after Obama’s health care bill was enacted with no Republican votes, the president and his advisers decided against courting Republican support for Wall Street reform. So the White House pulled the plug on the Dodd-Corker talks. Corker, by the way, had kept McConnell and other Republican leaders apprised of how the talks had gone. He was not told to back off. Dodd was.
On health care, Obama did summon Republican senators to the White House. One group consisted of four senators—Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, and Corker. Obama listened but didn’t offer concessions or discuss possible terms of a compromise. Before they’d departed the White House grounds, the senators discovered a wire service was already reporting that Obama had met with Republicans. They realized Obama had used them to create an impression of serious consultations with Republicans and nothing more.
The White House paid special attention to Republican senator Olympia Snowe of Maine on health care, and she was receptive. Indeed, she had not only voted for the stimulus, but, in the finance committee, had supported Obamacare. She opposed it on the Senate floor.
Snowe, who is not running for reelection in 2012, is a moderate with a strong preference for bipartisanship. But she came away from sessions at the White House with a less than favorable assessment of Obama. Snowe told Jonathan Karl of ABC News she gives Obama a “close to failing” grade on his willingness to work with Republicans. She hasn’t met with him personally in nearly two years.
On occasions when Republicans initiated legislation that might pass muster with Obama, they’ve generally been ignored. Earlier this year, House Republicans put together the JOBS Act to give small businesses better access to capital. Their bill was designed to find common ground. It included several items from the jobs bill Obama proposed last year and avoided measures that might have been seen as poison pills by the White House.
Still, Republicans got nowhere—until a section was added to make it easier for technology companies to raise capital. With the tech lobby applying pressure, the White House produced a letter of support. But even then, only one Obama appointee spoke out publicly on the bill, Mary Schapiro, the chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission. And she was strongly opposed. Nonetheless, it passed.
The situation with Obama and Republicans is pretty clear. His idea of compromise is when Republicans collapse and fall in line behind his agenda. He wants to be bipartisan, but only if that means getting his way.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.