If you don’t mind a holiday meditation on a big question that’s been central to widely varying predictions about Barack Obama’s presidency, here goes:
Many of the remaining doubts about his approach to the presidential office can be summed up in one word followed by a question mark: bipartisanship?
From his emergence onto the national political scene in 2004 throughout the long 2008 campaign, Obama has consistently linked a quite progressive agenda and voting record to a rhetoric thoroughly marbled with calls for national unity, “common purpose,” a “different kind of politics,” and scorn for the partisanship, gridlock and polarization of recent decades. Call it “bipartisanship,” “nonpartisanship,” or “post-partisanship,” this strain of Obama’s thinking is impossible to ignore, and has pleased and inspired some listeners while annoying and alarming others.
The weeks since Obama’s electoral victory have not resolved doubts and confusion on this subject. He’s worked closely with the outgoing Bush administration on emergency financial plans, appointed two Republicans to his Cabinet, and called repeatedly for overcoming the divisions of the election campaign—while simultaneously outlining the most ambitious progressive agenda since LBJ’s Great Society. He’s won applause from the Washington punditocracy for his “pragmatism” and “centrism”—even as leading Republicans blamed excessive moderation and complicity in activist government for their defeats in the last two elections.
Among self-conscious progressives and conservatives alike, there’s a prevailing belief that Obama’s “bipartisan” talk is largely a tactical device without real meaning—and a lingering fear that he might really mean it.
But suffusing these hopes and fears is a concept of “bipartisanship” that arguably has little to do with Obama’s: Democrats and Republicans in Washington, with their aligned lobbyists and interest groups looking over their shoulders, getting together behind closed doors and “cutting deals.” It’s the bipartisanship of legendary congressional sausage makers like Bob Dole or John Breaux who “get things done” by compromising principles and allocating influence according to Washington’s peculiar and semi-corrupt power dynamics. At its best, it’s the shabbily genteel Village Elders elitism that progressives call High Broderism. At its worst, it produces legislative abominations like virtually every big tax, energy or farm bill enacted in recent memory.
Is this what the anti-Washington change agent Barack Obama has in mind? And if not, what is he talking about, and shouldn’t he stop?
I’d suggest we suspend the iron belief that bipartisanship and bringing progressive change to Washington are contradictory goals, and take Obama’s own rhetoric a bit more seriously.
In all his speeches deploring partisan warfare, Obama invariably contrasts Washington’s political culture with a bipartisan desire outside Washington to meet big national challenges. Here’s how he put it in the speech announcing his presidential candidacy in February of 2007:
All of us know what those challenges are today – a war with no end, a dependence on oil that threatens our future, schools where too many children aren’t learning, and families struggling paycheck to paycheck despite working as hard as they can. We know the challenges. We’ve heard them. We’ve talked about them for years.
What’s stopped us from meeting these challenges is not the absence of sound policies and sensible plans. What’s stopped us is the failure of leadership, the smallness of our politics – the ease with which we’re distracted by the petty and trivial, our chronic avoidance of tough decisions, our preference for scoring cheap political points instead of rolling up our sleeves and building a working consensus to tackle big problems.
Fifteen months later, on the night when he clinched the Democratic presidential nomination, he paid tribute to the Iowa voters who gave his campaign its first big push:
You spoke of a future where the politics we have in Washington finally reflect the values we hold as Americans… These values don’t belong to one class or one region or even one party – they are the values that bind us together as one country.
That is the country I saw in the faces of crowds that would stretch far into the horizon of our heartland – faces of every color, of every age – faces I see here tonight. You are Democrats who are tired of being divided; Republicans who no longer recognize the party that runs Washington; Independents who are hungry for change.
Nowhere has Obama promised Americans he would come to Washington and broker deals between the two party’s congressional leaders and interest groups. What he has done is to promise those inside and outside the two parties’ rank-and-file that he’ll force Washington to get big things done—achieving universal health care, reducing dependency on oil, addressing the downside of globalization, making public schools work, responsibly ending the war in Iraq and restoring America’s full arsenal of non-military assets. These happen to be priorities that have steadily become dominant concerns for big majorities of self-identified independents and a significant minority of self-identified Republicans as well.
Defining both parties in Washington, and their fruitless rivalries, as obstacles to progress on these priorities made Obama’s demand for change a lot more compelling at the bipartisan grassroots, where some degree of bipartisan distrust of Washington has lurked under the surface of partisan attachments for decades.
So at a minimum, it’s reasonable to assume that Obama will continue as president, if only out of habit, to appeal to these bipartisan grassroots, even if their existence is disputed or their relevance denied in conventional political circles.
But these appeals could actually bear practical fruit in terms of persuading Republicans in Washington, or occasionally itchy moderate-to-conservative Democrats, to support his progressive agenda, for a number of reasons.
First of all, the November election results have significantly lowered the bar for the amount of Republican support Obama will need in Congress. With 58 or 59 Democratic Senators, and a robust majority of about 80 in the rule-disciplined House, GOP defections don’t have to be major, and those representing states or districts won by Obama will be vulnerable to public pressure.
Second of all, the economic emergency has, for the time being at least, knocked the props from under the fiscal disciplinary totems of moderate-to-conservative Democrats, including the Blue Dogs. A relatively unified Democratic Party further lowers the number of Republicans who need to be kicked or dragged across the line into cooperation.
Third of all, there is probably a good reason why Obama has decided to keep his personal organization and its vast electronic relationship with millions of supporters intact instead of disbanding it or folding it into the national or state Democratic parties. This officially nonpartisan network will work overtime to keep the bipartisan grassroots engaged in the struggle in Washington, and deploy pressure accordingly. This formidable organization is a tangible asset that should not be dismissed or minimized.
Fourth of all, George W. Bush’s loss of credibility should not blind us to the remarkable power of the Bully Pulpit of the presidency to frame political battles in a useful way, particularly in the hands of a public communicator like Barack Obama. If he continues to tell the public that he’s fighting to impose on Washington the bipartisan will of the American people to meet the big national challenges, and that those opposing him are representing the same special interests that have obstructed action for so many years, he’s going to get a response, as did the much weaker Bill Clinton in the post-1994 period when he stood for “Progress, Not Partisanship” against a much stronger congressional GOP.
Finally, and most importantly, the current economic emergency is dividing much of the country from Washington along lines very similar to those that Obama talked about during the campaign. At present, there’s an almost limitless appetite around the country for aggressive federal government action to staunch the recession, and to provide relief for its innocent victims, along with a strong belief that the steps being taken in the last days of the Bush administration are benefitting the usual powerful interests. If Obama and congressional Democrats can craft a legislative package that appears to focus relief outside Washington and Wall Street towards America’s most innocently-suffering people and places, along with longstanding popular priorities like universal health care and diversified energy sources, they can harvest a potentially major wave of support at the bipartisan grassroots.
Some of the recent progressive “takes” on Obama’s rhetoric of bipartisanship note the remarkable post-election atmosphere of conservative retrenchment within the national GOP, and suggest that’s why all such talk should cease. There’s no question that retrenchment is firmly underway, as perhaps best illustrated by two recent op-eds from House Republican Conference chairman Mike Pence and Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty calling for a constitutional Balanced Budget Amendment as a new Republican litmus test. There’s little or no talk of cooperation or even of basic common goals.
But far from proving that Obama should just drop the “pretense” of bipartisanship and launch an overt war on the GOP, I’d say it’s all the more reason to expose and increase the gap between GOP elected officials in Washington and their right-wing interest-and-advocacy group allies, and the bipartisan grassroots around the country. That’s a tack that could actually produce over a relatively short period of time the pro-Democratic, progressive realignment of the country that so many critics of Obama’s bipartisan rhetoric most crave.