Obama finds partisanship still alive and well in Washington

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 30, 2009 

WASHINGTON — As a candidate, Barack Obama pledged to change politics, to make it more civil, to reach out to Republicans and to find bipartisan answers to the nation's pressing problems.

Well, score a big one for civility. President Obama has met repeatedly with Republicans, inviting several for cocktails at the White House this week even after they voted against his proposed $819 billion plan to boost the economy. He's asked more over on Sunday to watch the Super Bowl.

He's batting zero so far in the quest for bipartisanship, however. After watching congressional Democrats move the stimulus proposal more toward spending and away from the tax cuts that Republican prefer, he failed to muster a single Republican vote for the package in the House of Representatives.

Does it matter?

Not when it comes to passing legislation. Like Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933, Obama has enough popularity, a nationwide hunger for action to address a crisis and big enough majorities in Congress to get pretty much what he wants with nominal bargaining in the Senate to reach the necessary 60 votes.

Lots of Democrats and their liberal supporters seem to want that. To the victors go the spoils, they say. "House Republicans? Screw them," said liberal blogger Markos Moulitsas Zuniga of Daily Kos.

Obama, however, wants broader support to help convince the country that the recovery plan will work, which is key to rebuilding shattered confidence and getting Americans to start spending again.

"A lot of it has to do with politics down the road," said Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. "From the president's point of view, if it doesn't work, it would help if he could say there were more than Democratic fingerprints on it. It would provide him some political cover."

Some GOP support also would make it harder for the Republicans to hammer Democrats in the 2010 midterm congressional elections. Most important, Obama needs it to change the tone of politics as he promised to do.

"Old habits die hard in this town. We get that," said White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs. "But the president understands that changing the way Washington works isn't likely to happen in just 10 days."

No it isn't, and certainly not in these first 10 days.

Pressed in one meeting to add more tax cuts to the stimulus package, Obama joked that he didn't have to make concessions on that big part of the agenda. "I won," he told Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va. "So I think on that one, I trump you."

Gibbs said later that it was a joke. "Everybody laughed," he said. "This wasn't cowboy diplomacy."

The fact, however, is that Obama's made only one symbolic bipartisan gesture, urging his fellow Democrats to drop a proposal to spend less than half a billion dollars on family planning.

After first urging $3 in spending for every $2 in tax cuts, the ratio changed, and neither the president nor the House Democrats budged on the plan's allocation of $2 in new spending to every $1 in tax cuts.

"Yes, elections have consequences, but where's the bipartisanship, Mr. Obama?" asked conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh this week as he led a high profile campaign against the proposal — a profile raised all the more by Obama's persistent criticism of it.

Limbaugh pressed for a realignment of the stimulus proposal to match the 2008 election results, with 54 percent going to spending and 46 percent going to tax cuts. (He didn't propose such a bipartisan approach after the last change of power, when Republican George W. Bush got fewer votes than Democrat Al Gore did.)

Obama still could push for concessions in the Senate. His aides are confident that he'll win some Republican votes there, and then in the House when the measure returns there.

A student of history, Obama's keenly aware of what happened to his party the last time it took over the White House and pushed through new economic policies.

Bill Clinton pushed through tax increases in 1993 with a narrow partisan majority, punctuated by the taunts of House Republicans to Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky of Pennsylvania, the House Democrat who cast the final, decisive vote for the tax plan.

Republicans rallied against what they called the "biggest tax increase in history" as well as the rest of the Clinton agenda, defeating her and seizing control of Congress the following year.

Yet Obama also faces some pressure from his party's liberal wing not only to get what it wants, but also to punish the Republicans.

"Bottom line, there is nothing inherently good about bipartisanship," Moulitsas wrote on dailykos.com.

"The only thing that matters is whether a solution is good or not. Consider that two of Bush's biggest disasters, his tax cuts and Iraq, were bipartisan affairs. Getting votes from the opposite party doesn't make the underlying legislation any more likely to succeed. If anything, our nation would've been better served with more partisanship during those times."

WORKING TOGETHER

Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933 won approval for the National Industrial Recovery Act, a keystone of the New Deal, with overwhelming Democratic support and a small fraction of Republican votes. In the Senate, for example, he got four of 28 Republican votes. Democrats went on to gain even more seats in both the 1934 and 1936 elections.

In 1981, Republican Ronald Reagan got his massive tax cuts through Congress with wide bipartisan support, including a majority of the Democrats voting in both the House and the Senate. The Republicans went on to lose seats in the next elections.

Republican George W. Bush in 2001 won his tax cuts with bipartisan support, including 12 Democrats in the Senate and 28 in the House. He went on to gain seats in the 2002 midterm elections, though those were influenced much more by the 2001 terrorist attacks, not the tax cuts.

(David Lightman contributed to this article.)

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