Like the snowfall on the nation’s capital, talk of bipartisanship blankets Washington. Gestures are being made. Grievances are being aired. Some bits of joint legislation are even taking shape.
The potential exists for a more harmonious working together – most importantly on joblessness, which has ticked down slightly to 9.7 percent.
But partisan winds still blow. Many members of Congress face highly competitive midterm elections, with the recent loss of the Democratic supermajority in the Senate showing both sides how much is at stake. Across the country, tea partyers stir their cups of populist outrage. And it’s so easy to fall back on the caustic rhetoric of recent years – to pelt ice balls and barricade oneself behind snow forts.
One person in Washington is in a better position than others to work against these forces, and that’s President Obama. He is not up for election this year. As he has said many times, he is the president of all Americans. Change is his mantra.
Since his State of the Union speech, Mr. Obama is reaching out to the GOP in visible ways. He’s invited some Republicans to watch the Super Bowl at the White House, and he plans to have them up to Camp David. That sounds perhaps frivolous, but socializing is one way to build trust, and Washington doesn’t see much cross-party chit-chat anymore.
More seriously, on Jan. 29 the president met with the House GOP caucus and engaged in an unusual and frank Q&A. On Tuesday, he’ll meet at the White House with congressional leaders from both sides, the first of a series of joint brainstorming sessions on policy.
The sessions appear to be his response to the Republican complaint of being “shut out” from consultation with Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Said Obama to the GOP caucus: “I think both sides can take some blame for a sour climate on Capitol Hill. What I can do maybe to help is to try to bring Republican and Democratic leadership together on a more regular basis with me. That’s, I think, a failure on my part.”
Obama got off to a bad start, leaving the details of the stimulus package to congressional Democrats to hammer out among themselves. That did not sit well with Republicans. While the president consulted with them on healthcare, and several GOP ideas did make it into the package, he ceded too much of the process to congressional Democrats.
Up sprung the new Republican senator from Massachusetts, Scott Brown, to press the healthcare brake pedal that the majority of Americans wanted to apply. It was another corrective message from the country’s independent voters – the deciders in American politics today.
Obama is going to have to more consistently engage the GOP if he wants to have any hope of change. And, as Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln hinted to him this week, the president will also have to “push back” at extremes in his own party. Bill Clinton did that, and got welfare reform. Obama failed to do that on healthcare, and, so far, has no bill to sign.
Of course, there’s no point to bipartisanship merely for the sake of a photo-op handshake. It’s a means to getting things done that both sides want. And while fundamental ideological differences separate Republicans and Democrats, those differences can’t so freeze lawmakers that urgent matters freeze too.
Flashing urgent is the need for jobs. The president has proposed a plan to stimulate small-business hiring that involves tax cuts and easier credit. These ideas fit the GOP framework and deserve support – as do Obama’s proposals on nuclear power and fiscal restraint. Encouragingly, Republicans are working with Democrats on jobs legislation in the Senate. Discouragingly, both parties are trying to add on conditions that seem aimed merely at scoring partisan points in the midterms.
Obama needs to prove his campaign rhetoric about changing Washington by scoring a big success with a broadly bipartisan bill on job creation. Then a better atmosphere of trust might lead to bigger things.