The Rose Garden: Obama’s Stabs at Bipartisanship Netted Very Little

Posted December 18, 2009 at 6:15pm

President Barack Obama entered office vowing to usher in a new era in which Democrats and Republicans toiled amicably together, crafting legislation to benefit the country while setting partisanship aside.

[IMGCAP(1)]The president traveled to Capitol Hill within a week of his inauguration — almost as a supplicant — to meet with the House and Senate Republican caucuses. He took questions, he answered questions and he even seemed to wow the GOP a little bit.

It was to be an era of cooperation. Coming on the heels of a bitterly contested election, the idea seemed a stretch to some. It was.

Eleven months into his presidency, Obama has little to show for his initiative. Republicans and Democrats still spend most of their time where they are most comfortable — at each other’s throats. And major legislation moves basically along party lines.

This month Obama has been reduced to trying to scrounge up a few more Senate Democratic votes for his health care bill because he doesn’t have the support of even a single Republican. His first order of business after the health care bill is done will be a stimulus bill that is already shaking out along partisan lines — just like the last stimulus bill did.

Even the issue of who’s to blame for the lack of bipartisanship breaks along party lines.

In an interview, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) suggested Obama had abandoned his own outreach. McCain fingered “hubris— as the culprit.

“I have watched that affliction affect the fortunes of both Republican and Democrat new administrations,— McCain said, asserting that “at least for appearance’s sake,— the White House should try to live up to its pledge.

“It didn’t happen on health care, it didn’t happen on the stimulus and it didn’t happen on Afghanistan,— McCain said. Instead, he charged, Obama has resorted to relying on his sizable Democratic majorities in the House and Senate.

After Obama’s victory over McCain in the 2008 presidential election, the two former candidates issued a joint statement calling for unity.

“At this defining moment in history, we believe that Americans of all parties want and need their leaders to come together and change the bad habits of Washington so that we can solve the common and urgent challenges of our time,— they said. “We hope to work together in the days and months ahead on critical challenges like solving our financial crisis, creating a new energy economy, and protecting our nation’s security.—

White House aides say Obama has and will continue to reach out to Republicans, but they charge that the GOP wants to pick fights.

“The question is, are the Republicans willing to do the same [as Obama] in terms of putting aside partisan politics to seek common ground,— one White House official said.

Obama aides grumble that Republicans rejected Obama’s overtures off the bat by uniformly opposing the stimulus early this year.

“How is it there was blanket opposition to a piece of legislation that was billed as helping the economy?— the White House official asked. He noted that several Republican governors favored it, while GOP lawmakers did not.

“Would [GOP Members] suggest that Republican governors compromised their principles, or did they put partisan politics aside for the best interests of the country?— he asked.

A senior Senate GOP aide said Republican ideas — including a list of tax cuts for the stimulus and medical malpractice reform for the health care bill — got little consideration.

“The only difference between how the White House handled the stimulus and the health debate is that Obama came and did a photo op before the stimulus,— he quipped.

White House aides point to Afghanistan and climate change as areas where they may achieve some measure of bipartisanship, pointing in particular to GOP support for Obama’s new Afghanistan strategy.

But McCain said that even on this issue, the White House approach has not been bipartisan. “I support the president, obviously, because I think it’s the right thing to do,— McCain said. But he added that he has been working mainly with Senate Democrats on the policy. “It hasn’t been with the White House,— McCain said.

Though he noted National Security Adviser James Jones did come to consult with him as the policy was being drawn up, McCain suggested that he was mostly frozen out by Obama. “Even though I support his strategy, I was never asked to come over there and strategize with him,— said McCain, who privately and publicly pushed President George W. Bush to adopt the “surge— strategy that has achieved success in Iraq.

Republicans charge that Obama has effectively asked them to vote in favor of Democratic policies and sacrifice their principles. The White House says Republicans aren’t even meeting Obama a quarter of the way.

But Obama may have erred in his thinking on the extent to which politicians would embrace ideas that they don’t like and walk a politically perilous line for the sake of cooperation. He asked Republicans to change their policies, at least just a little.

“Whether we’re Democrats or Republicans, surely there’s got to be some capacity for us to work together, not agree on everything but at least set aside small differences to get things done,— Obama said during a Feb. 10 press conference.

Bush didn’t make such a mistake. He merely asked for a change in the “tone— in Washington. He failed, too.