Reality sinks in

What happened to Barack Obama’s post-partisan America?

Reality sinks in

It had been the great promise of Barack Obama. From the day he burst onto the national stage at the Democratic National Convention in 2004, he sold a dream not only of bridging a racial divide, but of bringing the blue states and the red states into a single mythical, post-partisan United States. It was the thing that Hillary Rodham Clinton was said to be incapable of, as a polarizing figure whose politics were forged in the divisive culture wars of the 1960s. It was a sales pitch that made John McCain scoff with particular bitterness as he pointed to the deep political scars he wore from years of trying to forge bipartisan deals in Congress while Obama had been writing memoirs and voting the party line.

Things started out well at first. In his first days in office, Obama kept on George W. Bush’s defence secretary, Bob Gates, and eventually added two more Republicans to head the departments of Transportation and Commerce. He surrounded himself with bipartisan economic advisers. He had dinner with conservative pundits at the home of syndicated columnist George Will, while liberals got a meeting the next day—without food. But as soon as he began work on his first legislative effort—a massive stimulus package to revive the rapidly deteriorating economy—he couldn’t bridge the partisan divide, and steered right into it. It was far from the only stumble during Obama’s first weeks on the job. In fact, the man who had entered office with a message of hope and change quickly found himself at odds not only with Republicans but also members of his own party and liberal supporters on a number of issues—confronting the gulf between some of his lofty campaign promises and cold, hard reality.

Nowhere was that divide between high expectations and the real world more evident than in the nasty fight over Obama’s proposed stimulus package. Although Democrats now controlled both houses of Congress and the White House for the first time since 1994, the President had said he wanted to bring Republicans on board to craft a bipartisan bill that would be balanced between government spending and tax cuts. With a price tag of more than US$800 billion, there was presumably room enough for something for everyone. It was not to be: as both parties in Congress ended up hurling accusations of partisanship at each other, the Republicans almost succeeded in derailing the process. In the end, the measure passed the House of Representatives on Jan. 28 without a single Republican vote, and a modified $838-billion package squeaked by in the Senate only after days of wrangling to win a scant three Republican votes. House and Senate negotiations must now bridge several significant differences between the bills without blowing up the fragile Senate compromise.

The rejection by Republicans wasn’t just an embarrassment—it was a shot straight at the heart of Obama’s appeal. Indeed, his bipartisan strategy had looked increasingly risky for the Democrats, who had a mandate for change, with Republicans supposedly relegated to a rump minority, licking their wounds and arguing over how to begin the slow climb out of irrelevance. Instead, even GOP members surprised themselves with how effectively they tripped up the new guy. Obama stretched out his hand—and gave Republicans what House minority whip Eric Cantor has since called a “shot in the arm.”

It came right at the beginning of the process when, in spite of Obama’s call for bipartisanship, congressional Democrats began drafting the stimulus bill—without Republicans being in on the exercise. On Jan. 27, before the package was to be voted on in the House, Obama made a great show of journeying to Capitol Hill to have lunch with Republican members and listen to their concerns. In the days leading up to the vote, he pushed House Democrats to make compromises. When Republicans took aim at a provision that would have expanded Medicaid coverage of family planning services to low-income people, Obama asked the House to strip it—even though the Congressional Budget Office estimated it would save the government $200 million over five years in pregnancy and post-natal-related expenses. When Republicans ridiculed planned spending to improve the National Mall, Obama had that knocked out, too. Democratic Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey called Obama’s efforts “the most deliberative, most inclusive process in Washington that I have probably seen in at least my 17 years here.”

But it wasn’t enough. The Republican House members gushed about the “cordial” and “substantive” conversation with Obama, and praised his willingness to listen. But before they had even sat down to meet him, Republican House leaders had announced they would be asking their members to not vote for the bill, which they said still had too much spending and not enough tax cuts.

When the action moved next to the Senate, Republicans continued to chafe at the inclusion of a variety of spending projects that had languished on Democratic wish lists for years. Republican critics of massive spending filled the airwaves with talk of “porkulus” and “boondoggles.” Republican Senator Lindsay Graham of South Carolina held up bar graphs of projected debt, and asked, “Who is going to pay for all this?” Meanwhile, so many amendments were being offered and voted on in a mad scramble to win Republican votes that it was hard to keep track of how many billions were being spent on what. While the economy reeled, Obama seemed to lose control of the conversation.

Although Republicans praised the President for his outreach and attempts at bipartisanship, they faulted House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Democrats for not involving them in the drafting of the bill to make true bipartisanship possible. Pelosi retorted that by allowing Republicans to offer amendments in the committee process, she was giving them more opportunity to make their case than Republicans had given Democrats when the GOP controlled the House.

There was plenty of blame to go around once Congress took charge of the bill, says Norman Ornstein, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington. “Pelosi did not bring Republicans in when they were putting the package together, and she could have,” he says. “But at the same time, the process they used—going through committees and allowing votes on amendments—was more open than most of the things we saw when Republicans were in charge of Congress. It’s a mixed bag.” Nonetheless, the Republican rejection of Obama’s efforts was risky, he says. “It looked like Obama makes warm gestures and Republicans give him the finger.”

Some, though, faulted the President’s approach as well. Democrats—who balked at taking any advice from Republicans whose policies they blamed for the economic crisis—worried that not only had the efforts at bipartisanship unnecessarily delayed the crucial legislation, but that Obama had foolishly legitimized Republican ideas at a moment when they could have been discredited for a generation. Paul Krugman, the liberal economist and Nobel laureate, penned a scathing critique in the New York Times lamenting that the bargaining for the three Senate votes had done nothing but dilute the stimulus package. “President Obama’s belief that he can transcend the partisan divide,” wrote Krugman, “warped his economic strategy.”

But others urged the President to stay the course in the long-term interests of the country and the Democratic party. “I’m not of the camp who think the Democrats are in power now and we should just do whatever we want and ignore the Republicans the way they ignored us,” Al From, the founder and CEO of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, told Maclean’s. “I think we should do what is best for the country and get as broad support as we can.” The compromise in the Senate over the stimulus served to build a foundation for future bipartisan co-operation, he said. “Cultural change will take time and a building up of trust on both sides. Developing a post-partisan politics is a big part of the promise that Obama brought to the country.” From urged patience with the process. “It doesn’t surprise me that, for the first time in opposition, Republicans would vote in unison, and that the Democrats would try to exact some payback for how they had been treated by Bush for eight years,” he said.

The disappointing stimulus partisan food fight was not the only clash between campaign promises and the reality of governing during Obama’s early weeks on the job. He took office promising high-minded ethics reforms—a pledge that appeared to be undermined when a procession of his nominees to high-ranking positions turned out to have not paid their taxes. Timothy Geithner, his choice for treasury secretary (who oversees the IRS), had made what Obama called an honest mistake and was eventually confirmed despite a delay in paying $30,000 in taxes. But Obama’s pick for the newly created post of “chief performance officer,” Nancy Killefer, withdrew when it emerged she had not paid full taxes on household help.

The biggest blow came when Obama’s nominee for secretary of health and human services, Tom Daschle, pulled out when it emerged that he had not paid US$128,000 in taxes on a chauffeured limousine provided to him by a connected Democratic money man. The former Senate majority leader, an expert in health care policy, had left politics in 2004 and made millions as an adviser to an investment firm and a Washington law firm whose clients had business with the government. But he was seen as uniquely qualified to push through Obama’s planned health care reforms. The prospect of a Senate confirmation hearing, though, probing Daschle’s post-politics enrichment with the help of health industry lobbyists, was a political nightmare in the making.

That question of lobbyists haunted Obama on other fronts as well. He had vowed during the campaign that lobbyists “won’t find a job in my White House,” and issued an executive order on ethics that included a ban on anyone in his administration working on issues related to private sector work with former clients for two years. But he found himself making exceptions: for William J. Lynn III, a former lobbyist for defence contractor Raytheon whom Obama nominated as deputy defence secretary before the order was issued, and William Corr, a recent anti-tobacco lobbyist whom he nominated as deputy secretary at Health and Human Services. (Corr said he would recuse himself from tobacco issues.) It all made his appointments process look less than squeaky clean. “You’ve come to our town and asked us to trust you, but those that you appointed to your cabinet are not trustworthy, can’t handle their own budget and taxes,” a skeptical woman told Obama on Monday at a town hall in Elkhart, Ind., where the President had travelled to promote the stimulus bill. Obama conceded he’d made a mistake. “We have not been perfect but we are changing the culture in Washington. It is taking us some time.”

Time indeed. If Obama faced a reality check on partisanship and lobbyist entanglements, some of his more liberal supporters faced a reality check of their own: Obama is, after all, a politician. A case in point is the matter of the Office of Faith-Based Initiatives, created by George W. Bush to allow religious organizations to receive government grants for administering social programs such as drug and alcohol counselling, soup kitchens and after-school programs. The policy had come under fire because Bush had allowed the groups to use taxpayer funds to pay the salaries of employees hired under discriminatory practices, for example by a Christian group that would not consider hiring a Jew, Muslim, atheist or homosexual. Obama not only kept the controversial office intact, but expanded its role and renamed it the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. He did not issue a blanket change to the hiring policy, but created an advisory council to oversee hiring issues on a case-by-case basis.

Obama also punted several other hard decisions down the road. With great fanfare, two days after his inauguration, he declared he would close the prison at Guantánamo Bay, and froze the military trials there. But he put off for six months the complicated question about what to do with the detainees. Likewise, he banned torture and said U.S. interrogations would comply with anti-torture laws and treaties, but left the details to a review of specific permissible interrogation techniques. As well, his key election promise of withdrawing troops from Iraq within 16 months is under review, with the Pentagon also studying timetables of 19 and 23 months.

Meanwhile, the day after his inauguration, Obama issued executive orders bringing more transparency and less secrecy to government. However, the American Civil Liberties Union objected this week when his administration reaffirmed the Bush administration’s legal arguments in a lawsuit by four foreigners who claim they were kidnapped by the CIA, taken overseas and tortured. Both administrations asked the court to shut down the case under a state secrets privilege, on the grounds that even talking about it would endanger national security. Obama’s new attorney general, Eric Holder, said the use of the state secrets privilege in all litigation inherited from the Bush administration would be . . . reviewed.

Perhaps most importantly, Obama’s latest bailout plan for the banking system, presented by Treasury Secretary Geithner on Tuesday, was faulted by investors for its vagueness, and for leaving too many questions to be answered down the road. It sent stocks tumbling and raised doubts about whether the new administration would ever get a grip on the credit crisis.

For a moment during the stimulus bill fiasco, it looked like Obama might be reconsidering the bipartisanship thing. At a retreat for congressional Democrats on Feb. 5, he accused his critics of engaging in “phony arguments and petty politics,” and railed against Republican demands for more tax cuts. “Don’t come to the table with the same tired arguments and worn ideas that helped to create this crisis,” he said. Then, on Monday, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters that drawing more GOP votes for the package was less of a priority than getting the bill passed: “The President is worried less about what the makeup of that vote is than we are about getting something done and getting something to his desk to sign.”

But his approach appears to have played well with the public. A Gallup poll released on Monday, based on surveys in ther first week of February, suggested that 63 per cent of Americans approve of Obama’s handling of the stimulus package—a few points less than he had at the height of the inaugural lovefest, but still strong. Congressional Republicans, by contrast, had only 31 per cent approval. Team Obama was relieved. “There’s a conventional wisdom to what’s going on in America via Washington, and there’s the reality of what’s happening in America,” said Gibbs.

It didn’t hurt the President that Republicans directed most of their attacks at congressional Democrats, and not him. “I think his desire to have greater Republican support was not possible, as a result of the product that the majority in the House and Senate produced,” said the Republican leader in the Senate, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, on Monday. But McConnell hoped to have “genuine bipartisanship” on issues going forward and was particularly “open” to working with Obama on reforming entitlements.

And in spite of his earlier outbursts, the President has kept on courting. On Friday, he invited each of the three moderate Republican senators who voted for the stimulus for one-on-one chats. Pennsylvania Republican Arlen Specter, the senior Republican on the Senate judiciary committee that confirms federal judicial appointments, said Obama spent much of the time discussing co-operation on judicial appointments. “That’s what we talked about, having a bipartisan approach,” Specter said. “I think he means it.”

At his first presidential press conference on Monday night, Obama said his overtures “were not designed simply to get some short-term votes. They were designed to try to build up some trust over time. And I think that, as I continue to make these overtures, over time, hopefully that will be reciprocated.” He also said the stimulus fight taught him something about hardball tactics. “I suppose what I could have done is started off with no tax cuts, knowing that I was going to want some,” Obama mused, “and then let them take credit for all of them. And maybe that’s the lesson I learned.” The learning curve has been steep and quick, but, said Obama, “I am the eternal optimist.”