President Obama’s political learning curve continues. Despite promising to end partisan polarization and change the tone of Washington, he – by his own admission – missed the mark during his first year in the White House.
What went wrong? Simply put, Mr. Obama’s wounds were self-inflicted. For starters, he decided to use his party’s large congressional majorities – rather than building bipartisan coalitions – to achieve legislative success. “Having the votes” trumped compromising with Republicans on issue after issue.
But he’s keeping hope alive.
At least, that's what he tried to do in both the State of the Union address and his more recent appearance at last week’s House Republican retreat in Baltimore (a cross section of conservative and liberal bloggers and activists have now launched a “Demand Question Time” campaign to ensure these bipartisan sessions to occur regularly). Yet despite his rhetorical efforts, the president’s bipartisan stew is missing some critical ingredients.
For starters, he has to call out his own party in Congress for its unwillingness to compromise. Focusing all the attention on the GOP’s reluctance to bargain makes Mr. Obama look either naïve or cynical.
Moreover, the president needs to recalibrate both his bipartisan tactics and expectations. All policies are not created equal. Discriminating between realistic bipartisan possibilities and unlikely pipedreams is another area where the president needs improvement.
His rhetoric and responses to the GOP in Baltimore last Friday reveal a president on a steep learning curve when it comes to cutting polarization’s Gordian Knot.
For example, he couldn’t come up with a convincing retort when Rep. Peter Roskam’s of Illinois asserted at the GOP retreat that the House and Senate Democratic leadership doesn’t share Mr. Obama’s desire for bipartisanship – because they don’t.
The exchange underscored how the president’s lack of legislative experience undercuts his ability to make good on his post-partisan promise. Up until now, he and the Democrats in Congress virtually ignored Republicans. While the president pays lip service to bipartisanship, his party’s leaders in Congress don’t even try. And as his party’s national leader, the president bears a lot of responsibility for how his congressional leaders engage with the opposition. After all, he’s the one that promised to change the tone.
Unfortunately for congressional Democrats, bipartisan success means using the dreaded “T-word” (triangulate) – something he’s been unwilling to do during his first year in office. The president will have to tell Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Majority Leader Harry Reid, “There are several ways to win when you have the majority. But in order to fulfill my bipartisan commitment, we have get some Republican votes. I insist on that. And if that means giving up some of what the Democrats want, so be it.”
So far the president has been unwilling to send that message and probably never will. But if he’s serious about reducing polarization, that’s what it’s going to take. If he doesn’t, he’s not naïve, only cynical.
But there’s a bigger problem. The president cannot find bipartisan solutions in every policy debate. If he thinks he can, then he really is naïve. He should identify and capture the low-hanging fruit. National security policy is one example. When it comes to funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or new resources to fight terrorism, Mr. Obama should highlight his support from Republicans (and Republicans should underscore their support of the White House). He will likely need this in the months ahead. For most Americans, these are important questions and areas where they would welcome lowering the polarization levels.
When it comes to domestic policies, finding common ground on hot button political issues, like health care, cap and trade, or raising taxes, will not work. Neither party has much to gain from compromising core philosophical beliefs. Former House GOP leadership staffer John Feehry who writes for The Hill got it right this week when he observed, “Complaining that Republicans aren’t helping to pass an agenda that they fundamentally disagree with is intellectually dishonest.”
But in less politically charged areas, like transportation infrastructure, telecommunications policy, or maybe even energy – where the give-and-take is based more on regional interests than political philosophy – the president may have some additional opportunities for success.
Remember, while bipartisanship may be on the menu, lawmakers and the presidents don’t need to eat it for every meal. He could claim progress just by breaking the polarization monopoly in a few domestic and foreign policy areas.
President Obama’s unsuccessful approach to solving the polarization quagmire is a direct result of his inexperience in Washington – not just an obstinate opposition. We’re all watching his excellent bipartisan adventure and wondering if, after a year on the job, he’ll begin to figure it out.