Obama’s Attempts at Bipartisanship: a Chronological Review

(Author’s note: This is the first in a two part series using a chronological review of media reports.  The second article will detail Republican obstructionism of most of the Obama agenda, particularly his jobs bills, a fact that refutes the criticism that Obama’s agenda – the same agenda that Republicans have blocked – has failed)

We have heard the “Obama as radical partisan” canard from Republican critics since the first day of Obama’s first term, and the fog of history and rhetoric makes it difficult to objectively assess Obama’s record on bipartisanship.  Republican dogma says that Obama was the uber-partisan, pushed his agenda from day 1, and that Republicans waited in vain for Obama to work with them on bipartisan solutions.  In response, Obama supporters point to numerous attempts at bipartisanship and argue that Republican obstructionism is to blame for a failure to collaborate.  The result of this debate is a foggy, backward-looking blame game that provides no tangible view of how this history unfolded and which side of this argument is the right.

In trying to make the case that Obama tried, hard, to reach across the aisle, I thought it useful to examine the last few years not from the perspective of hindsight, but from the perspective of media coverage of the events of Obama’s first term as they were happening.  This “time machine” perspective presents a chronological play-by-play of the history of Obama’s attempts at bipartisanship that is uniquely illustrative.

But first, I want to share a November 2008 piece written by conservative political scientist and writer Peter Berkowitz in the Weekly Standard just days after Obama’s historic win.  In that article, entitled “Supposing Obama Were a Bipartisan“, Berkowitz lays out seven measures that Obama could back if he is serious about truly governing as a centrist.

Of these 7 measures, two became obsolete (the first having to do with Republican paranoia about the Fairness Doctrine and the second regarding campus speech codes at public universities), and of the remaining 5 Obama backed at least 4:

  • Obama resisted calls for Congressional Democrats to pursue criminal investigations of the Bush Administration.
  • Obama reappointed Robert Gates as Secratary of Defense.
  • Obama appointed a “judges judge”, Sonia Sotomayor, as his first appointment to the Supreme Court, a judge that Lindsey Graham (R-SC) called “generally in the mainstream….not an activist“.
  • Obama endorsed charter schools.
The fifth criteria, that Obama regularly consult with members of Congress, including Republicans, is worth debating and provides a segway to the chronological review of media articles below, but I would generally argue that Obama did begin his Presidency by reaching out to Republicans, appointing Republicans to his Administration including three Republicans to his cabinet (an unprecedented move by a US President), and by including many Republican ideas in his policy proposals, such as shovel-ready defense jobs and lots of tax cuts in the stimulus bill, both the individual mandate and healthcare exchanges in Obamacare, and his pledge to ban earmarks.  
But let’s jump into our time machine and take a chronological look at just how hard Obama tried to reach across the aisle.  The list of articles below are far from exhaustive, come from diverse mainstream media sources (including Fox News), and include the date, title (linked), and a key quote or excerpt from each article:

February 4, 2009 – Obama names third Republican to cabinet

 “Besides naming Republicans to cabinet posts, Obama has elevated three recently retired four-star military officers to top government positions, an unparalleled representation of the military brass in a Democratic administration. He has appointed Gen. James Jones, retired Marine commandant, as his national security adviser; Gen. Eric Shinseki, retired Army chief of staff, as secretary for veterans affairs; and retired Admiral Dennis Blair as director of national intelligence.”

May 18, 2009 – Obama tries to sway GOP in favor of health care

 “I believe they’re making an honest and overt effort to deal with Republicans,” said Delaware Rep. Mike Castle (R). “The White House is genuinely interested in resolvable issues.”

July 28, 2009 – Obama Reaches Out to Republicans on Health Care, but Bipartisan Bill Looking Unlikely (Fox News Article)

“….[Obama] invited four Republican senators to the White House to discuss health care. Three…are seen by colleagues as highly unlikely to vote for an Obama-backed plan.  The fourth…is a moderate Republican viewed as a possible supporter, even though she has demanded changes in the Democratic-drafted bills.”

January 30, 2010 – Obama talks to House Republicans in Baltimore in rare, televised debate (find the video here, and definitely watch Jon Stewart’s coverage of it at the bottom of this article)

 “White House advisers and Republicans both declared the event a success. With a series of contentious issues on the horizon — regulatory reform, a jobs bill and the tax on banks, for starters — Obama wanted to challenge GOP claims that he has been partisan and exclusionary and to demonstrate, as his advisers like to put it, that it ‘takes two to tango.’ “

February 2, 2010 –  Obama Continues Policy Outreach to Republicans

“The president has invited members of Congress from both parties for a meeting at the White House next Tuesday, the first of the bipartisan brainstorming sessions that Mr. Obama proposed during the State of the Union address. Republicans will also be invited to the White House this weekend to watch the Super Bowl, as well as to Camp David and other venues for social visits.”

December 3, 2010 – Stop Playing Nice, Mr. President: Why liberals are increasingly frustrated with Obama’s efforts at bipartisanship.

“Liberals are…..irritated because he appears to be set on following the same strategy for the second half of his term that failed in the first half: reaching out to Republicans, getting shot down by a unified GOP, and getting no credit for trying. Outgoing Ohio governor Ted Strickland put it this way….: “…The president said he should have been willing to work with the GOP earlier. What? After all of this you don’t realize these people want to destroy you and your agenda? How many times do you have to be, you know, slapped in the face?”

December 17, 2010 – Obama Signs Bill To Extend Bush Tax Cuts

“The bill, which was largely worked out earlier this month between the White House and Congressional Republicans, extends the Bush-era tax cuts for all Americans for two years, extends unemployment benefits for 13 months and includes a one-year Social Security tax cut, among other measures.”

July 19, 2011 – President Obama praises ‘Gang of Six’ debt ceiling plan

“President Barack Obama hailed a proposal offered Tuesday by Republican and Democratic senators as “a very significant step” that represents “the potential for bipartisan consensus” on resolving the impasse over cutting the deficit and lifting the debt ceiling.  But reality quickly settled in, as House Republican leaders expressed skepticism, Senate leaders were noncommittal and rank-and-file members of both parties questioned whether it just is too late to pull everything together.”

October 13, 2011 – Democrats thwart Obama’s bipartisan goals again

“Losing a few members of your own party isn’t a death blow by any means. In fact, Nelson has been bucking his party on tough votes for a long time. But by voting the way they did on the jobs bill, the senators also give Republicans political cover to oppose the key legislation.”

Nov 1, 2011 – Obama Appoints Democrat, Republican to FCC

“President Obama appointed a member from each of the main political parties to fill out the Federal Communications Commission, as the regulatory body looks to manage a full agenda in the coming months.”

Jan 17, 2012 – Obama jobs council pushes ideas backed by Republicans

“The reports’ emphasis on taxes, regulation and energy thrilled Republicans. It’s almost exactly what Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson of Georgia recommended in the GOP’s weekly radio address Saturday….The report was heralded by House Speaker John Boehner, Congress’ most powerful Republican…”

June 19, 2012 – Obama And Congress: Bipartisanship Talk Met Reality

“Presidential and congressional scholar George Edwards of Texas A&M says Obama essentially gave up on the Republicans. ‘The president spent a lot of time negotiating with Republicans to try to get bipartisan support, but he couldn’t. He couldn’t achieve that,’ Edwards says. ‘Ultimately, he did what is necessary in these days, and that is you, in effect, ram things through on a partisan vote.’ “

The above articles tell a story about Obama’s efforts to reach across the aisle. The idea that Obama never reached out to Republicans ignores this important story, a story of unified Republican opposition and a new political  reality where compromise is a bad word and everyone loses.  In his widely read piece “Waterloo“, conservative David Frum, George W. Bush’s former speechwriter, bemoaned the passing of Obamacare as Republicans “most crushing legislative defeat since the 1960s.”  As Frum wrote of his Republican Party:

“At the beginning of this process we made a strategic decision: unlike, say, Democrats in 2001 when President Bush proposed his first tax cut, we would make no deal with the administration. No negotiations, no compromise, nothing. We were going for all the marbles. This would be Obama’s Waterloo – just as healthcare was Clinton’s in 1994….This time, when we went for all the marbles, we ended with none.”

Without question, Obama’s efforts at bipartisanship were not perfect.  His legislative strategy overly emphasized selectively outreach to the GOP leadership or to  small groups of Republicans in order to get enough votes to pass his agenda, leaving many Republicans feeling ignored or left out of the process.  However, as Frum’s piece confirms, when one party in a negotiation is fully intent on not budging an inch, no attempts at bipartisanship would have succeeded.  In an excellent piece in the Washington Post on this topic, Dan Balz outlines missed opportunities by Obama to bridge the partisan gap.  The piece also highlights the fact that Obama faced unified obstructionism from the GOP.

There are many reasons for the new partisan norm that has poisoned our politics and paralyzed our government.  Thanks to partisan redistricting, primary elections have become more significant for many Congressional races and the result are more extreme legislators.  And while the Democratic Party has remained fairly consistent on the Liberal-Conservative scale since the 1970s, the Republican Party has experienced a sharp and measurable move to the Right over the last four decades,  making compromise hard and good government impossible.  And the problem will only get worse as moderates continue to retire in disgust.  From Balz’ piece:

“After the rancor of the past few years, [Senator] Snowe has announced her retirement and cited the political climate as a reason for her pessimism. She sees blame all around and has not absolved her party from responsibility. But she says that if anything is to change, it will come only through presidential leadership.”

As evidenced in this article, Presidential leadership absent a Republican Party willing to compromise will not deliver on the promise of bipartisanship that so many Americans want.

Please look for the second part of this series which will examine the history of Republican obstructionism using a similar chronological review of media reports over the last few years.  I leave you with one of my favorite Daily Show clips of all time the day after Obama attended the House Republican Convention in January of 2010.

Jon Stewart on Obama’s Debate with House Republicans at their Convention in January 2010.  It’s a must watch…



About Cyrus

Cyrus Tashakkori is Vice President at Pioneer Green Energy, a wind and solar power developer based in Austin, TX. He has an MBA and a Masters in Public Policy from the University of Texas in Austin and a Bachelor's in Science & Economics from the University of North Carolina, Asheville.
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