The Obama Presidency: Why Partisanship Prevails
Policy + Politics

The Obama Presidency: Why Partisanship Prevails

The Fiscal Times/iStockphoto

On the January night in 2008 when he won the Iowa caucuses, Barack Obama delivered a victory speech that would reverberate forcefully across a divided America. Iowans, he said, had come together — Democrats, Republicans and independents — to stand as one in calling for a new politics of unity and hope. It was a message that would help carry him to the White House 10 months later.

"You said the time has come to move beyond the bitterness and pettiness and anger that’s consumed Washington," the then-senator from Illinois said that winter night in Des Moines. "To end the political strategy that’s been all about division and instead make it about addition. To build a coalition for change that stretches through red states and blue states. We are choosing hope over fear. We’re choosing unity over division and sending a powerful message that change is coming to America."

Today Obama’s words sound quaint, even naive. Instead of bipartisanship, there is polarization as deep as it has been in modern times. Instead of cooperation, there is confrontation. Instead of civility, there is rudeness. The political system seems frozen and more resistant to compromise than ever. Two months before the 2012 election, the campaign has become an all-or-nothing battle over the future direction of the country.

Obama's reelection is threatened most by the state of the economy. But he also could be hurt because of the disappointment felt by voters who invested so heavily in what he seemed to offer four years ago and for whom expectations were raised to stratospheric heights. That is part of the matrix of the choice in November. Why has President Obama fallen so far short of what he so passionately described as a candidate four years ago? To the partisans on both sides, the answers are simple — and fundamentally at odds. The president’s advisers contend that Republicans chose the course of obstruction and intransigence from the day Obama was sworn in.

"We met an implacable opponent in the Republican leadership," said David Axelrod, senior strategist for Obama’s reelection campaign and former White House senior adviser. "They made a decision, and they’ve been very open about it, that from Day One they weren’t going to cooperate on any major issue."

To Republicans, it is the story of a president who arrived in Washington with big majorities in the House and Senate and decided to ram through a series of liberal initiatives with little regard to the ideas or sensibilities of the other party. "Their agenda for the first two years was, ‘Let’s go down our to-do list and move the country to the left as fast as we can,’" said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer said there has been a misunderstanding of just what Obama was talking about in 2008 when he called for a new politics. "The president didn’t promise an era of kumbaya politics in which everyone agreed. The primary thing he talked most about was that politicians too often ran from big problems that had haunted our country for decades. Whether folks like it or not, he did jump in and take on very big problems with full knowledge that they would have political consequences for him."

That Obama ran into a wall of opposition from the Republicans on many of those initiatives is indisputable. What is at odds in these varying interpretations is whether anything might have changed that. Republicans say it could have been different. But there is little evidence that, once their leadership decided to oppose Obama, there was much he could have done to win them over — and there are plenty of examples showing how dug in they were. There are also questions about how hard Obama tried. His advisers cannot point to a clear strategy for trying to create a climate of cooperation — other than their belief that the support he won in the election and the economic crisis would create those conditions. They argue that he incorporated Republican ideas into the stimulus and spent months waiting to see if a bipartisan health-care plan would emerge from the Senate Finance Committee.

He also missed or passed up opportunities to show his willingness to challenge the status quo. And there is not much evidence that, as things turned sour, there was a fallback strategy for how to change the climate. Through the first 2.5 years, there were ongoing efforts toward accommodation, but he found no way to break through the divisions. When the debt-ceiling negotiations collapsed amid recriminations on both sides, Obama decided to move virtually full time into campaign mode.

Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine), who spent hours in discussions with the president and his advisers over health care and stimulus, said she believes Obama truly wanted to change the political climate. "I think there was the belief that he would bring a fresh perspective, that he wasn’t saddled with all the political baggage of previous administrations or Congresses and that he was coming with an entirely new approach to change the political dynamic that had intensified in recent years," she said. "There are many people disillusioned by the fact that he was unable to accomplish that goal."

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Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker who fought with and compromised with President Bill Clinton in the 1990s, believed the country was hungry for an end to political conflict and was invested in the success of the nation’s first African American president. On Inauguration Day, Gingrich said recently, he told his wife, Callista, that if Obama followed through on what he had said throughout the campaign, "he will be Eisenhower and he will split the Republican Party."

Later that evening, Gingrich joined a dozen or so other Republicans for a dinner at the Caucus Room restaurant. Their conversation about how to plot a comeback was described in some detail by author Robert Draper in his book Do not Ask What Good We Do. When Gingrich left the dinner, he told his colleagues, "You’ll remember this as the day the seeds of 2012 were sown."

Asked recently to reconcile his feelings on the afternoon of the inauguration and his conclusions after the dinner, Gingrich’s response encapsulated both the promise of the Obama presidency and the obstacles he would encounter trying to fulfill it. "Our job was to design the optimum GOP strategy," Gingrich said. "Obama’s job was to govern so our strategy would fail."

Said Axelrod, "If on inaugural night, leaders of the Republican Party are meeting to talk about how they could thwart the president, it belies the notion that they are waiting patiently by their phones for a call from the president to see if they could work together."

There was certainly much more to Obama’s candidacy in 2008 than his appeal for the nation to transcend its partisan divisions. He promised to end the war in Iraq. He pledged to fix the country’s broken health-care system. And in the final weeks, he vowed urgently to find the tools to prevent another Great Depression. But more than anything, the aspiration to create a post-partisan politics gave a special lift to his candidacy and created outsize expectations for his presidency.

The call for a new politics shorn of bitterness and red-blue divisions had long been at the heart of Obama’s political persona. He wove that message into every important speech of the campaign, from his announcement in February 2007 all the way to his inauguration speech. By then, however, Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill were already at odds over an economic stimulus program. Republicans call the stimulus battle the original sin of the Obama presidency. White House officials mark it as the moment when hope and change collided with Republican intransigence.

David R. Obey, the Wisconsin Democrat who then chaired the House Appropriations Committee, has recounted an exchange that he said took place during the post-election transition with the committee’s ranking Republican, Rep. Jerry Lewis of California. Obey said he told Lewis that Democrats wanted Republicans to submit ideas for the bill. Obey said Lewis responded by saying: "I’m sorry, but we can’t play. Orders from headquarters." Lewis has claimed the conversation was not as Obey recalls it, but he declined requests for an interview to explain his version of events for this article.

White House officials mark Jan. 27, 2009, as the day they realized what they were facing. Obama was scheduled to go to Capitol Hill to discuss the stimulus bill with House and later Senate Republicans. In a meeting that morning, then-House Min. Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) exhorted his troops to oppose the bill.

Before the president left the White House, House Republicans publicly announced their opposition. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, White House chief of staff during the first two years of the Obama administration, said recently, "If you decide before you listen what your position is, it’s really hard to build trust, cooperation and openness."

A senior adviser to Boehner provided a different context. He said Boehner was trying to appeal to the president to break with House Democrats on the stimulus. "We wanted to get the president to reject the House stimulus and work with us on one that would work," he said. "At that point, we were still hoping to work with him in the bipartisan way he’s described." 

What Republicans were asking was, in fact, extraordinary. They were asking him to make a compromise he did not have to make. They were asking him to reject his party and invite Republicans into the room. They were asking that he make a gesture simply to show he was serious about changing politics — without any guarantee that by doing so he would win even a minimal number of Republican votes.

Obama was not willing to go that far. He was already under pressure from his left wing for an even bigger stimulus. He may have felt he would be seen as weak. But there was also the overriding sense of crisis and the fear that a failure to move quickly would result in a second Great Depression.

"We frankly didn’t have the luxury of waiting for the logjam to break before we could act," Axelrod said. "So we had to put together the votes we could put together. That largely turned out to be among Democrats because Republicans were moving en masse. I think that fed on itself."

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Emanuel also rejects GOP charges that the White House had turned over drafting to the House leadership. He said he argued with Obey over provisions the president wanted in the bill and he said he "spent 48 hours locked in a room with three Republican senators trying to pass the president’s bill. The House Democrats are furious that we’re allowing not only the Senate but three Republicans a role."

He noted that the three Senate Republicans — Snowe, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania (who later became a Democrat) and Susan Collins of Maine — were under attack from their Republican colleagues for working with the president.

The Senate bill cut the size of the stimulus package and added more tax cuts. When it was returned to the House, it still attracted no Republican votes. "That’s four weeks into his presidency," Emanuel said. "I don’t imagine you can blame him for the first four weeks. Whatever responsibility we had [to change politics in Washington], we hadn’t screwed it up in the first four weeks."

In those early weeks of the administration, even as the stimulus was driving the parties apart, Obama began his courtship. He hosted regular receptions for members of both parties. He held a Super Bowl party at the White House that included Republicans and Democrats. He went to talk to Republicans on Capitol Hill. "We had almost every member of Congress down here for a social function," Pfeiffer said. There were other efforts, administration officials said.

"We had meetings constantly," Emanuel said. There were meetings that included Republicans in the chief of staff’s office, which often included an appearance by the president. The president met in the Oval Office with the committee chairs and other ranking members in charge of the financial regulatory overhaul. He had lunch in his private dining room with House leaders dealing with education.

Still, Republicans and Democrats say Obama never developed the kind of personal relationship with congressional leaders that can break legislative impasses. He can be cool and aloof, hardly a political schmoozer. That role was delegated to Vice President Biden, who had served in the Senate for three decades.

"He doesn’t try, or he doesn’t know how," said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.). Asked about the opposition Obama faced from GOP leaders on his major initiatives, he said: "I’m not saying it’s easy. If just that causes you to stop, that just shows you don’t know very much about what you’re doing."

A Democratic ally of the administration said the composition of the White House staff and the Democrats’ majorities contributed to the lack of relationships with congressional Republicans. "I’d say he had a uniquely congressional, partisan, inside Washington group of people. I think they reinforced one another," said this Democrat, who declined to be identified, in order to speak frankly.

One of the strengths and weaknesses of Obama’s 2008 campaign was that Americans of different ideologies could project their own hopes onto Obama and believe that they were his, too. To independent voters, who abhor the partisanship of Washington, that meant that he would truly change the tone of politics. Liberals may have believed that Obama’s charisma would be so transforming that, by the force of personality, he could push through a liberal agenda and win the country’s support for those policies.

Other Americans, who saw Washington as a swamp of money, special interests and backroom deals, may have heard his words and seen a capital more open, transparent and responsive to ordinary citizens. Obama made some of those changes, including tough limits on the role of lobbyists in government, over heated opposition from some of his advisers.

During his transition, Obama spoke about the style of leadership he wanted to emulate, one drawn from his reading of the history of Abraham Lincoln’s presidency. What he admired about Lincoln, he said at that time, was "just a deep-rooted honesty and empathy to the man that allowed him to always be able to see the other person’s point of view and always sought to find the truth that is in the gap between you and me." He said that, unlike some presidents who bent people to their will, Lincoln found a way to lead without tricks or bullying. "I just find that to be a very compelling style of leadership," he added. "It’s not one that I’ve mastered, but I think that’s when leadership is at its best."

As it turned out, that style of leadership did not fit the times — or Obama was unable to make it work as he hoped.

Emanuel argues that while partisanship colored the debate over stimulus and later health care, there was other legislation that passed with Republican support even as the stimulus fight was starting. "We did try to change the environment," he said.

But two Republican senators — Charles E. Grassley of Iowa and Orrin G. Hatch of Utah — believe an early battle over extending a children’s health program did the opposite. During George W. Bush’s presidency, Grassley and Hatch had worked with Democrats to develop a bipartisan bill. They took heat from some of their colleagues but forged ahead, even in the face of Bush’s veto. They hoped to move a bipartisan bill early in Obama’s presidency, and they were negotiating final changes as the new administration was coming to power.

Suddenly their Democratic colleagues told them the negotiations were over, on orders from the Obama team. A more liberal version of the bill passed the House on Jan. 14, 2009, with 40 Republican votes. The Senate approved it 15 days later. Nine Republicans voted for it, but neither Hatch nor Grassley supported it.

"We had all stuck our necks out to create a bipartisan bill, only to have the rug pulled out from under us at the beginning of the Obama administration," said a Grassley aide who declined to be identified, in order to talk about the internal negotiations. "The point was made to them: Do you really want health-care negotiations to start off by undoing so completely an agreement that had been reached?"

Obama passed up another opportunity early in his presidency to show his commitment to changing Washington’s ways. It came after Congress approved an omnibus spending bill that was filled with earmarks. The president’s political advisers argued that he should veto the bill as a way to begin to fulfill his campaign pledge. Others argued that a veto would enrage lawmakers who had negotiated the package.

"The argument was if you do this you’re going to blow up relations with Congress that could jeopardize the recovery act," Pfeiffer said. Obama signed the bill, a decision he has since said he regrets.

After the stimulus fight, Obama turned his attention to health care and what turned into another huge, partisan brawl. For many months, Obama worked patiently to win the support of at least a few key Republican senators. White House officials and key Republicans point to an Aug. 6, 2009, meeting between the president and half a dozen members of the Senate Finance Committee as another turning point in the hardening of partisan lines.

By that time, the health-care debate had become inflamed around the country. Tea party activists were already taking aim at the various versions of the legislation. The month of August would become consumed with news reports of angry shouting matches at lawmakers’ town hall meetings. The president and several of his top advisers met in the Oval Office with six senators from the Finance Committee, the crucial body attempting to develop a bipartisan health-care bill.

Many Democrats, including liberal activists, were losing patience with the committee and its chairman, Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.). But at the beginning of August, Obama still held out hope that he could win Grassley’s support and that the Senate committee could move forward on a bipartisan basis. According to several people who were in the room that day, Obama posed a question to Grassley. If the White House were to agree to changes in the bill, was he in a political position to lend his support? Grassley said no.

"You realized at that point, yes, we had sort of crossed the Rubicon," said Robert Gibbs, White House press secretary at the time. "Regardless of what we came up with, they just weren’t going to be for it."

Grassley explains his decision differently, based on the experience of the stimulus debate. Obama "said to me would I be willing to be one of two or three Republicans to vote with Democrats to get health care passed," Grassley said. "I said in front of the president and the other five senators, no. I said no because this isn’t the premise that I went to the negotiating table with with Baucus. We were trying to get broad bipartisan support."

The August meeting brought an end to discussions between Grassley and the White House. "Since that August meeting, I haven’t had a single telephone conversation with the president," Grassley said.

White House officials saw Grassley’s hesitation as evidence of a lobbying effort by McConnell to keep his party unified in opposition to the president’s initiative. "If anybody even hinted they were having a discussion with us, their next appointment was in Mitch McConnell’s office," Gibbs said.

McConnell makes no apologies for his strong opposition. "It wasn’t for purposes of embarrassing anybody," he said. "It was to try to stop it. I think it’s a 2,700-page monstrosity, a huge, huge mistake." But White House officials also say Grassley’s reluctance reflected the rising power of the tea party. That summer, tea party activists had blocked Sen. Robert F. Bennett of Utah in his bid for reelection. Elsewhere, tea party candidates were winning primaries.

Grassley takes issue with the White House analysis. He denies that McConnell exerted undue pressure on him and claims he was not cowed by the threat of a primary challenge by tea party activists. He said it was Obama who proved to be something other than the candidate who ran in 2008.

"I see a president more concerned about his own personal success than the success of the country, a person who sees things politically and ideologically, more than he does practically," he said. "When you see things that way, that’s why you aren’t post-partisan."

Many of the ideas incorporated into the administration’s health-care proposal, including the individual mandate, had come from Republicans. Grassley’s answer to why Republicans nonetheless opposed them was a perfect illustration of how the tea party altered the political terrain. "We never thought about it from a constitutional point of view, only from a practical point of view," Grassley said. "When you think about it in terms of the constitution and limited government, it makes you change your mind pretty quickly."

The president spent even more time trying to win Snowe’s support for a health-care bill. She became, in her words, "a gang of one" under pressure to back the legislation. "It all fell apart in the summer," she said. "It was about the death panels. I said, ‘We don’t have death panels in our legislation.’ But everything got so confused. Six packages in the House and a variety in the Senate. It got caught up in the town meetings. It spiraled out of control."

Eventually, she supported the bill in the Finance Committee, a crucial vote that pushed the measure to the Senate floor. But she balked at approving the final bill. As the bill grew in size and complexity, Snowe said, she urged the president to scale it back, but Obama wasn’t willing. She said she told him during a December meeting that he should call a cooling-off period. "He wasn’t prepared to accept that," she said.

The health-care bill passed over united Republican opposition and deepened the partisan divisions in the capital. Its passage was in many ways a tribute to the old politics that Obama had derided as a candidate — accomplished through backroom deals and special favors to lawmakers that left a terrible odor with many Americans.

Perhaps there was an alternative strategy that might have gotten it done. But if there was, no one in the White House or on Capitol Hill could persuade Obama that it would be successful. To Obama, the choice by then was between a partisan path that would result in the biggest piece of social welfare legislation in decades or something less partisan that carried no such guarantee of success.

In November 2010, Republicans took control of the House and narrowed the Democrats’ majority in the Senate. Obama called it a shellacking. Immediately after the election, McConnell said his top political goal would be to deny Obama a second term. White House officials say it was yet another sign that Republicans would resist the president’s initiatives at every opportunity. McConnell says that conveniently overlooks what happened next.

"What they don’t point out," McConnell said, "is that I said the election is two years away and in that very same month, Biden and I were negotiating tax extension."

Those negotiations came during an unusually productive lame-duck session. McConnell and Biden worked out an agreement to extend the Bush-era tax cuts for two years. In return, the Republicans agreed to a payroll tax cut favored by the White House as a way to pump more money into the economy.

Many liberals in Congress hated the deal. Grass-roots activists saw it as a sign that a politically weakened Obama did not have the backbone to stand up to the Republicans. The measure passed and Obama went on to win a series of victories during the session, including ratification of the new Start nuclear agreement and an end to the Pentagon’s policy barring gay people from serving openly in the military.

Obama, his advisers say, came away from the experience with a renewed, if mistaken, hope that compromise and cooperation might be possible. But the political climate during the lame-duck session was an anomaly. What followed was eight months of contentious debate over the budget and the deficit.

As Obama was pushing through his lame-duck agenda, the fiscal commission headed by former Republican senator Alan Simpson of Wyoming and Erskine Bowles, who was chief of staff in the Clinton White House, concluded their work on a plan to deal with the country’s massive debt and deficit problem. Obama had appointed the commission only after Congress failed to enact legislation to create an 18-member bipartisan commission. Congress failed in large part because seven Republican senators who had earlier co-sponsored similar legislation declined to vote for it with Obama in the White House. Simpson regarded the Republicans’ decision not to support it as "a shot at the president and nothing more."

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The commission reported at the beginning of December. (Among those voting no was Rep. Paul Ryan, now the GOP nominee for vice president.) The White House offered only a lukewarm response to the commission’s report. "There was no response at all from the president," Simpson said. "Just thank you."

Simpson has two theories about why Obama did not step forward to embrace the report. "He would have been torn to bits by his base," he said. "Number two, at that stage of his presidency, if he had said, ‘I like this,’ there would have been a unanimous Republican vote against it. He probably took the best choice. Move on."

In the early months of 2011, Obama and congressional Republicans circled one another as a series of budget negotiations began. The first round ended only hours before a threatened government shutdown. During those negotiations, Obama held back from offering a broader plan to combat the deficit. When Ryan, the House Budget Committee chairman, issued his comprehensive budget, which called for major spending cuts and dramatic changes to Medicare, Obama responded with a partisan blast.

The White House invited members of the Simpson-Bowles commission to attend the speech. With Ryan sitting in front of him, the president said: "There’s nothing serious about a plan that claims to reduce the deficit by spending a trillion dollars on tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires. And I don’t think there’s anything courageous about asking for sacrifice from those who can least afford it and don’t have any clout on Capitol Hill."

The next day, Simpson and Bowles met with the president. "Erskine said, ‘I thought you were very harsh on the Republicans and on Ryan,’" Simpson said. "I said it was like inviting the guy to his own hanging. The best thing was to not invite him or not pillory him. Well, [Obama] didn’t like that. He does bristle. Nothing wrong with that. I bristle."

The debt-ceiling debate in the summer of 2011 offered one more chance for the president and congressional Republicans to truly change the polarized politics of Washington. Instead, the negotiations ended in a breakdown that has governed relations between the parties since.

All of which leaves the question of what would happen in a second Obama term. The president’s advisers believe the instinct for consensus remains part of Obama’s basic political makeup — though Republicans still do not. Obama’s team points to the fact that whether as president of the Harvard Law Review or as a member of the Illinois Senate, he found ways to bring together people of opposing views. The current campaign, however, could make hitting a reset button more difficult — if that is the president’s hope or intention.

After the rancor of the past few years, Snowe has announced her retirement and cited the political climate as a reason for her pessimism. She sees blame all around and has not absolved her party from responsibility. But she says that if anything is to change, it will come only through presidential leadership.

"I would hope that he would recognize that he essentially has the capability and the capacity to get it done," she said. "People expect that of a president. He should be able to use the power of his office to work with Congress in a way they could produce the results that are so desperately needed for the future of our country. Somehow, it has not worked. Perhaps he does not appreciate the dimensions of his own office. I don’t know."

Obama has said many times that one of his biggest regrets as president is not being able to deliver on his 2008 pledge. This summer, Charlie Rose asked Obama about that during an interview on CBS’s "This Morning."

"I think there’s no doubt that I underestimated the degree to which in this town politics trump problem-solving. Washington feels as broken as it did four years ago," Obama said. "And, if you asked me what is the one thing that has frustrated me most over the last four years, it’s not the hard work, it’s not the enormity of the decisions, it’s not the pace. It is that I haven’t been able to change the atmosphere here in Washington to reflect the decency and common sense of ordinary people — Democrats, Republicans and independents — who I think just want to see their leadership solve problems. And there’s enough blame to go around for that."