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.

Joshua Roberts/Reuters
Nary a Republican: Senate majority leader Harry Reid of Nevada prepares to speak after the Senate voted along party lines Nov. 21 to debate the healthcare bill.

"There is not a liberal America and a conservative America – there is the United States of America," Barack Obama intoned at the Democratic National Convention in 2004.

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."

Indeed, when Obama rails against partisanship in his 2006 book, "The Audacity of Hope," part of what he's really calling for is a renewal of civility in politics. Obama's run for the presidency was marked by an often cerebral style, punctuated by big arena speeches that accentuated hope and optimism.

During the primaries, his post-partisan message proved the perfect counter to that of his chief rival for the nomination, Hillary Rodham Clinton, who was seen as the Democratic establishment favorite.

"Obama positioned Hillary as the ‘machine' candidate," while he was the outsider who wanted to bring people together, says Democratic communication specialist William Klein. "I always thought that was a fantasy, that Republicans would smack themselves on the forehead and say, ‘Gee, we were wrong, we should all just hug each other and get along,' " he says. "My hunch is that the postpartisan message tested well, and that's why [the Obama campaign] did it."

Even as Obama was calling for a post-partisan era, he and his team were doing everything they could to gain partisan advantage, building the most sophisticated Information Age campaign ever. No sooner had Obama been inaugurated, than his campaign apparatus was embedded in the Democratic National Committee.

That apparatus, now called Organizing for America, remains active in revving up the Democratic base to fight for healthcare reform and counteract the antitax "tea partiers" and other anti-Obama forces at town hall meetings.

Since the early smack down on the stimulus plan, the White House has insisted that bipartisanship isn't dead. It's all a matter of how you define bipartisanship, says Rahm Emanuel, White House chief of staff.

"The test of bipartisanship is not just how many Republican votes you have," he said at a Monitor breakfast in June.

Whether a bill contains bipartisan ideas is another test. "This will be bipartisan," Mr. Emanuel said of healthcare reform. The third test, he said, is whether the president is seen as trying to garner bipartisan support. He tried on the stimulus, and on healthcare he has gone after the few Republican votes that may be winnable.

"It's very hard to be bipartisan in an era that's strongly partisan," says Sidney Milkis, a political scientist at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville.

But in the administration's dealings with Fox News, the gloves came off. In October, communications director Anita Dunn called Fox "a wing of the Republican Party," setting off a period in which several top administration officials openly went after Fox. Obama himself did not engage the topic when asked, but he clearly was OK with the message.

The anti-Fox hurricane has subsided. While in Beijing, Obama broke the boycott by sitting for an interview with the network's senior White House correspondent, Major Garrett. Administration officials say they never had a beef with the network's White House reporters; their ire was aimed more at Fox's coverage of protests against healthcare reform.

Still, the White House's anti-Fox episode did seem to undercut its message that this was a postpartisan administration.

"It is clear," says Mr. Hess, that Obama is "post-postpartisan."

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