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Bipartisanship isn’t so easy, Obama discovers

The party-line schism in Congress' vote on the stimulus bill made clear the futility so far of President Obama’s effort to move Washington toward post-partisanship.
/ Source: The New York Times

On the day before the big vote, President Obama took a freshman Republican member of Congress aboard Air Force One to visit Illinois. Before an audience in Representative Aaron Schock’s district, Mr. Obama praised him as “a very talented young man” and expressed “great confidence in him to do the right thing for the people of Peoria.”

But when Mr. Schock stood up on the House floor on Friday, less than 24 hours later, his view of the right thing for the people of Peoria was to vote against the most important initiative of Mr. Obama’s young presidency.

“They know that this bill is not stimulus,” Mr. Schock, 27, said of his constituents. “They know that this bill will not do anything to create long-term, sustained economic growth.”

Whatever it will do for the economy, the legislation that passed Friday will clearly not do anything to create long-term, sustained bipartisan reconciliation. Not one Republican voted for Mr. Obama’s plan in the House and just three voted for it in the Senate as it headed to final passage on Friday night. The party-line schism, coupled with the withdrawal on Thursday of a Republican senator, Judd Gregg, as a nominee to Mr. Obama’s cabinet, made clear the futility so far of the president’s effort to move Washington toward post-partisanship.

Their unrequited overtures to Republicans over the past several weeks taught Mr. Obama and his aides some hard lessons. Advisers concluded that they allowed the measure of bipartisanship to be defined as winning Republican votes rather than bringing civility to the debate, distracting attention from what have otherwise been major legislative victories. Although Mr. Obama vowed to keep reaching out to Republicans, advisers now believe the environment will probably not change in coming months.

Rather than forging broad consensus with Republicans, the Obama advisers said they would have to narrow their ambitions and look for discrete areas where they might build temporary coalitions based on regional interests rather than party, as on energy legislation. They said they would also turn to Republican governors for support — a tactic that showed promise during the debate over the economic package — even if they found few Republican allies in Washington.

And they laid out plans to get Mr. Obama out of Washington more so he could preserve his image as a reformer and use his popularity to rally public pressure on lawmakers to go along with his program. After spending his first three weeks as president in Washington, Mr. Obama hit the road this week with stops in Indiana, Florida and Illinois. Next week he will travel to Colorado and Arizona.

“He’s committed to getting out of town at least once a week,” said David Axelrod, the White House senior adviser. “It’s easy to get cloistered and get carried away by the tat-tat-tat of insider palaver. That’s not what’s important. What’s important is what’s going on in people’s lives.”

The polarized vote on Capitol Hill, Mr. Axelrod added, should not obscure the “enormous achievement” of passing a $787 billion economic program, the largest of its kind in generations.

“Yes, we’ve learned some lessons from this,” Mr. Axelrod said. “But primarily we’re happy with the way it turned out.”

More experienced Washington hands said the White House had been unrealistic to expect to win much Republican support.

“I’m not sure I would describe it as naïve, but wishful thinking,” said John D. Podesta, a former White House chief of staff who ran Mr. Obama’s transition and still informally advises his team.

The White House will be able to “pick off” individual Republicans on individual issues, Mr. Podesta predicted, but will not be able to change the calculation made by the opposition party to be in opposition.

“What would make it change?” Mr. Podesta asked, referring to the Republican determination to challenge Mr. Obama. “If you’re going to do this at the moment of greatest need, at the height of his popularity, what sort of thing would get you to change?”

The lesson, Democrats said, is that it is not so important to win bipartisan support as long as Mr. Obama is seen by the public as trying.

Each side will try to impose a price on the other. Democrats have begun a radio advertising campaign in the districts of 28 House Republicans, calling them “out of step.” Republicans are responding next week with radio advertisements in the districts of 30 Democrats, accusing them of “wasteful Washington spending.”

Mr. Obama is the third president in a row to arrive in Washington promising to work across the aisle, only to trip over it instead. Bill Clinton’s economic plan in 1993 passed without a single Republican vote, setting the tone for years of partisan warfare. George W. Bush vowed to change the tone, but his disputed election in 2000 engendered deep bitterness, and though he won some Democratic support on some of his early initiatives, he quickly found himself facing intense opposition.

Mr. Obama tried to overcome that history, going to Capitol Hill to meet with the Republican caucuses, calling Republican lawmakers and inviting three Republicans into his cabinet. But Republicans dismissed that as more talk than action, complaining that he did not address their substantive complaints about the economic plan. The withdrawal of Mr. Gregg punctuated the sense that Mr. Obama had found the limits of bipartisanship.

The personal wooing would only go so far. When Mr. Schock was invited to fly to Peoria with Mr. Obama, he said in an interview that he made clear that he thought the economic measure was filled with spending that would not boost the economy.

“If you’re telling me that the only way I can get on Air Force One is to vote for the bill,” Mr. Schock recalled saying, “the answer is no.”

Mr. Schock was invited to ride anyway. And on Friday afternoon, he voted no.

Jeff Zeleny contributed reporting.

This article, "Bipartisanship Isn't So Easy, Obama Discovers," first appeared in The New York Times.