Was Obama’s promise of a post-partisan era ever possible?
Obama's campaign promises of a post-partisan Washington dissolved within his first weeks in office. That might not be such a bad thing.
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Mr. Obama was not yet even a member of the US Senate, but he was already laying out a major theme of what would become his campaign for president: that stark partisanship was harming America's ability to achieve national renewal, and that he was prepared to usher in a new era of postpartisanship.
After President Obama's inauguration, that new era lasted just a few weeks. In the first major business of his term, the $787 billion economic stimulus plan, Obama failed miserably to attract much bipartisan support. In the House, not one Republican voted for the package, and in the Senate, only three Republicans went along – one of whom became a Democrat a few months later.
The vote was a big wake-up call for the new president.
"It should have told him, ‘Hey, let me think about this. Am I being too idealistic? Or too naive? Or too arrogant?' " says Stephen Hess, a Brookings Institution scholar and veteran White House staffer in previous administrations.
Obama, after all, had tried to woo Republicans into supporting the bill, spreading money all around the country as the economy lost jobs at an alarming rate. But no amount of dealing – or curried chicken or wagyu beef, as the White House served at a bipartisan cocktail party the evening the House voted - was able to change minds.
After the big spending of their own George W. Bush, Republicans were going to take a stand against the new Democratic president.
In retrospect, Obama could have seen this coming. The Republicans were diminished after two bruising elections, and even if they did not have much of a game plan of their own, they could certainly hold together in near-unison against the other party's plan. The same story is playing out on healthcare reform.
It's important to note that, over the decades, the parties have become more homogeneous, allowing for less ideological room to deal across the aisle. Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson both garnered significant Republican votes for their reforms because, in the 1930s and 1960s, the GOP had a rich tradition of liberalism, particularly in the Northeast.
Today, Republicans barely have even any centrists. The Democrats are the ones with the big tent, which holds a significant contingent of "blue dog" moderates and conservatives. As Obama tries to nail down enough votes for health reform, it's become a mostly intra-Democratic Party affair.
It is easy to bemoan the rapid return of "politics as usual," but in fact partisanship is what the American political system is all about. It is through the clash of partisan ideals, and hard-nosed dealmaking, that solutions emerge.
"Partisanship is built into the very fabric of the country," says former Rep. Lee Hamilton (D) of Indiana, in an interview with the publication Public School Insights. "But it makes an awful lot of difference how you act as a partisan."