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Local politics

Washington Post
President Obama’s promise to change the political culture in Washington has fallen short in his first term for several reasons.

Why Obama failed to deliver change

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 re-election 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.

‘Kumbaya politics’

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 re-election 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,” he said. “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, after 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 whether a bipartisan health-care plan would emerge from the Senate Finance Committee.

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.”

High expectations

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 outsized expectations for his presidency.

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 Minority Leader John 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 Obama to make a compromise he did not have to make. They were asking him to reject his party and invite Republicans into the room – without any guarantee that 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. 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.”

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.”

Health care fight

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 the support of Republican Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa 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.”

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.

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.

The deal passed and Obama went on to win a series of victories, 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.

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

“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 this summer during an interview with Charlie Rose on CBS’s “This Morning.” “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.”