Obama signals he will tap his rivals

Many presidents have vowed to end partisanship. Few succeed.

John Gress/Reuters
Reaching out: On Monday, President-elect Obama (r.) met with his onetime rival, the GOP nominee and Arizona senator John McCain.

Will he build a team of rivals?

As President-elect Obama crafts his transition to the White House, he’s reaching out to former adversaries like Hillary Rodham Clinton for potential cabinet posts and across the partisan aisle to people like GOP standard-bearer John McCain to try to forge alliances.

It’s a governing style used by Abra­ham Lincoln, whom Mr. Obama says showed “wisdom there and a humility.”

In Washington, where partisanship often grinds action almost to a halt, the approach is being eyed warily. History shows that most new presidents vow to reach across the aisle and end partisan rancor, to little avail.

But the urgency of America’s problems – a tanking economy and the burden of the Iraq war – may be enough to allow Obama to shift the capital’s governing style.

It even has a new tag: “transpartisanship.” The idea is to bring together people with differing ideologies around aspects of issues on which they can agree – from economic stimulus to a more transparent government.

“The country is tired of hyperpartisanship and would love a vacation from it – and that’s what it would be, a vacation, because it will be back,” says Larry Sabato, a political analyst at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. “But it’s worth a try. The question is, can you bring people into the tent and keep them there? These are gigantic egos, and it’s not going to be easy.”

In a Monday meeting with Senator McCain, Obama has signaled his intent to work across party lines on a variety of issues. “We’re going to have a good conversation about how we can do some work together to fix up the country,” he told reporters before the meeting.

McCain, asked whether he would help Obama with his administration, responded, “Obviously.”

After the meeting, they issued a joint statement that read in part: “[W]e had a productive conversation today about the need to launch a new era of reform where we take on government waste and bitter partisanship in Washington in order to restore trust in government, and bring back prosperity and opportunity for every hardworking American family.”

Government transparency a priority

During his tenure in the Senate, Obama made government transparency a priority – opening government processes to citizens. He took a transpartisan approach, working with Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma on a piece of transparency legislation. That may be a guide map of how Obama will operate with Congress after he becomes president.

Working with transparency advocates – a diverse group of liberals, progressives, conservatives, and libertarians – the two senators wrote a bill requiring the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to create a searchable website of all government spending. Congress eventually approved the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act. Now, Americans can go to USAspending.gov to learn exactly how their tax dollars are being spent.

“With a click of a mouse, you can find out who is getting how much money and for what programs,” says Gary Bass, executive director of OMB Watch, a nonpartisan group dedicated to improving accountability in government. “Never before has anything like that happened. It suggests that this is really something that people are looking for – and that Obama can build on that as a model.”

To get through Congress, the bill had to clear hurdles in the Senate. Its backers for a time appeared to be stymied by a maneuver called an anonymous hold, in which an unknown senator can privately block a bill he or she doesn’t like. When it appeared that the transparency bill would pass in the Senate – making it easier for people to see which senators sneaked how many pet projects, or “earmarks,” into bills without public discussion – someone put an anonymous hold on the bill.

“So the right and left bloggers out there suddenly took over and went headhunting for the senator who was the anonymous hold, and it turned out to be the king of earmarks, Sen. [Ted] Stevens of Alaska,” says Mr. Bass. “When he took it off, there was another anonymous hold. So they went checking, and it was the other earmark king, Sen. [Robert] Byrd [of West Virginia]. And so they, in a left-right kind of way, got both of the holds off, and the bill went through unanimously.”

A push to involve the public

Obama has signaled that he’ll use the Internet to reach out to average Americans.

His agenda to make government more transparent, already announced, includes publicizing earmarks, putting legislation on the Internet for comment before he signs it, reining in lobbyist influence, and having cabinet secretaries regularly take questions from the public. Some he can do from the White House, but much of it will require congressional action.

“If Obama does want to push that kind of an agenda, the biggest roadblocks will be some of the old bulls in Congress,” says Chris Edwards, director of tax policy at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington.

While people generally like the notion of open government, Mr. Edwards notes, they also like the pet projects their congressmen bring home, from library renovations to bridges.

There are also concerns that more public forums concerning legislation and regulations could negatively affect the quality of decisionmaking. For instance, the loudest voices that post the most tend to take over the Web’s public forums.

“You’ve got to set up controls to stop that from happening,” says Ari Schwartz, vice president of the Center for Democracy and Technology, a pro-transparency group based in Washington. Lobbyists have more resources and can hire people to follow these forums, where they post a lot of responses that reflect their partisan views, he says. That could mask the real beliefs of the public. “You’ve got to be able to sense that,” says Mr. Schwartz.

“It can’t just be a popularity contest,” he says. “There still have to be people in government who can make judgments based on the quality of the ideas, not just what gets the most people onto a [Web] page.”

Many remain optimistic about the impact of increasing transparency on government’s efficiency, its ability to overcome partisan differences, and its ability to connect with average Americans.

“It sends a very good message that the government is taking steps to do this,” says Robert Bluey, director of the Heritage Foundation’s Center for Media and Public Policy. “That’s the way the government is going to win back some trust.”

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