President Barack Obama is on a charm offensive with congressional Republicans. He recently spoke to the House GOP conference at the Capitol for the first time in four years and had a dinner party with Republican senators that filled the newspapers — and not just on the society pages of The Washington Post.
The newsworthiness of these two events explains why Obama has failed to enact a single meaningful domestic policy initiative in almost three years. The president is late for dinner.
Between 2009 and 2010, Obama and a Democratic Congress achieved long-held liberal goals including nationalized health care, expansion of food stamps, new regulatory bodies governing Wall Street and federal subsidization of every state and local government civil service job.
Then voters flipped on the lights and sent in the chaperones, in the form of a Republican Congress and state legislative majorities that would draw new maps to make sure it stayed that way.
Obama’s arc was similar to the one Bill Clinton rode between 1993 and 1995. Like Clinton, Obama initially refused to cooperate with his new ideological curfew. But Clinton ended his pout in 1996, famously declaring “the era of big government is over.”
Clinton then achieved his most lasting policy accomplishments with Republican help: welfare overhaul and budget-balancing that fueled an unprecedented economic boom. Clinton found fodder for his legacy by choosing a few philosophical priorities of his opponents to embrace. Similarly, George W. Bush crossed the ideological divide to create the Medicare Part D prescription drug benefit and nationalized education standards. Bush’s father had likewise signed the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Clean Air Act, just as Richard Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency.
Partisans of those presidents found fault with their moves across the middle. But divided government’s history clearly shows presidents moving toward the Congress on domestic matters and the Congress complying with the executive’s priorities on foreign policy. Yet Obama has been unwilling to champion any center-right priority since voters put Republicans in charge of Congress.
On the rare occasion when congressional Republicans reach minor accords with Obama, the president spikes the football and plays his collaborators for fools.
Obama’s first presidential campaign was rhetorically post-partisan. Yet he was perhaps ill-suited to govern that way. Prior to his elevation in 2008, Obama’s only electoral successes came in an inner-city state Senate district and in a blue-state U.S. Senate contest when his Republican opponent’s chances imploded in a sex scandal. Obama had never before wooed Republican voters en masse — and never coped with strong GOP majorities in Illinois’ statehouse or as a senator. Throughout his meteoric rise in American politics, Obama has never needed congressional Republicans. Until now.
White House insiders now leak to the press that Obama feels “stymied” by House Republicans and is determined to oust them from power in 2014. They imply the talented campaigner will do that at which he excels instead of maturing to elevate his game. Others, including Obama himself, suggest his Republican dinner outreach marks a turn in his approach and acceptance that the voters deliberately and simultaneously chose him and a GOP House.
Obama’s presidential legacy, and his ability to make a dent in our country’s deep and urgent problems, depend on his willingness to make last week’s bread-breaking more than a one-time public relations stunt.
Instead of just showing up once for dinner, Obama has to put something on the table.
Brad Todd is a founding partner of OnMessage Inc., a Republican media and opinion research firm.