ANALYSIS: Obama's bipartisanship hopes face early tests

Tuesday, January 27, 2009 | 5:21 p.m. CST; updated 5:29 p.m. CST, Tuesday, January 27, 2009

WASHINGTON — Long before Barack Obama became president, he spurned the "smallness" of American politics and the old habit of muscling past the opposition to get things done. But old habits die hard.

While Americans overwhelmingly embraced Obama's message of unity, already there are Democrats thirsting for the spoils of victory and Republicans pushing back with force.

And if the rhetoric aimed at Obama has been somewhat restrained within Congress thus far, it remains red-hot among the partisans populating talk radio.

"I hope he fails," Rush Limbaugh pronounced with fanfare last week.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee seized on that as a "preview of the outrageous Republican attacks that are on the way against President Obama."

Obama may have been premature when, in his inaugural address, he proclaimed an end to "the petty grievances, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics."

Presidents past have shown that in the hard realities of governing, it will be extremely difficult to deliver on his lofty sentiments.

Whatever the difficulty of the mission, Obama's early efforts to reach out and chart a new course on both domestic and foreign policy have been both substantive and symbolic.

Since becoming president:

•His first trip to Capitol Hill was to pay a visit not to Democrats in Congress but to opposition Republicans.

•His first television interview went to Al-Arabiya, an Arabic-language satellite TV network.

•His first cave-in was to dump money for family planning from his giant economic stimulus bill, representing a giveback to Republicans.

In his TV interview, Obama told viewers in the Muslim world that he was seeking a new partnership "based on mutual respect and mutual interest."

He could just as well have been talking to the partisans on Capitol Hill, where finger-pointing remains a popular form of exercise.

"The Republican Party is turning into the Dr. No Party," Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., complained Tuesday.

Obama's "biggest problem is with his own party," countered Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

There was plenty of rosy talk of bipartisanship when Obama emerged from his meetings with House and Senate Republicans on Tuesday.

"I don't expect 100 percent agreement from my Republican colleagues, but I do hope that we can all put politics aside," the president said after his session with House members.

But there was little to suggest his closed-door meetings with the Republicans altered the dynamics on Capitol Hill, where Democrats and Republicans are sharply at odds over the contents of the president's stimulus package and showing no hesitation in blaming one another.

"As grateful as we are for the president's spirits, House Democrats have completely ignored the president's call for bipartisan cooperation," groused Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind.

Obama's quest for bipartisanship isn't motivated simply by the desire for a feel-good presidency. He needs Republicans to keep his winning coalition intact.

Independents and conservatives who crossed over to support him in the November election could well turn their backs if he doesn't deliver.

Working with Republicans — and getting a buy-in from them — helps to protect his image as a different kind of politician — and president.

"In the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things," Obama admonished in his inaugural address.

Obama himself will have to decide how far he's willing to go to promote harmony. After all, he gently reminded Republicans late last week: "I won."

American University professor James Thurber, an expert on the presidency, said Obama is making all the right moves in trying to fashion "a different kind of presidency in terms of post-partisanship. That doesn't mean it will work."

While most presidents come in "saying the right things in terms of bipartisanship," Thurber said, ever since Watergate, the result has been "really scorched earth."

Obama's challenge in dealing with Congress is evident in the numbers: In 1961, 30 percent of House and Senate members were considered moderates based on an analysis of their voting patterns, compared with less than 5 percent in 2006, and that number is probably even smaller now, said Thurber.

It can't be lost on Obama that his predecessor, George W. Bush, came to office pledging to be "a uniter, not a divider" and failed even by Bush's own account.

"It didn't turn out the way I was hoping it would," Bush acknowledged in one of his exit interviews.

"I wish him all the best, I really do," Bush said of Obama. But he didn't sound all that convinced it would work.

Former President Bill Clinton came to office with a Democratic majority and was content initially to push through his first-year economic plan without one Republican vote. He became a convert to the benefits of bipartisanship when he had to — upon losing control of both the House and Senate two years into his first term. That produced some bipartisan results, welfare reform among them, but the partisan lines hardened all over again when the impeachment battle erupted.

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