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Obama bipartisanship push has mixed success

While preaching bipartisanship and civility in his first months, the president also has shown a willingness to push his priorities through Congress over Republican opposition
Obama Meets With Congressional Leaders On Economic Stimulus Package
Left to right, Rep. James E. Clyburn, D-S.C., House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Majority leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., listen as President Obama speaks during a Jan. 23 meeting with bipartisan congressional leaders at the White House.Mark Wilson / Getty Images
/ Source: The Associated Press

Barack Obama swept into office with a lofty promise to bridge the capital's fierce partisan divide.

Easier said than done.

"Old habits are hard to break," the new president acknowledged in February as reality set in just weeks after he took office.

And that reproach includes him, too, as he nears the 100-day mark of his presidency. While preaching bipartisanship and civility in his first months, Obama also has shown a willingness to push his priorities through Congress over Republican opposition, as with the $787 billion economic stimulus plan.

Polarized times
The White House also has engaged at times in the divisive politics Obama himself has condemned, for instance mocking commentator Rush Limbaugh as the GOP's titular head.

The president continues to emphasize overcoming poisonous partisanship. At one point, he said, "Whether we're Democrats or Republicans, surely there's got to be some capacity for us to work together, not agree on everything but at least set aside small differences to get things done. People have to break out of some of the ideological rigidity and gridlock that we've been carrying around for too long."

That's asking a lot in extraordinarily polarized times, even for a politician who won election by casting himself as a leader able to foster inclusiveness. His advisers say they hope he will get credit at least for trying to change the way Washington works. Republicans in Congress suggest it's little more than lip service.

"Sometimes the president mistakes courtesy for bipartisanship," said John J. Pitney Jr., a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in California. "He's basically a very nice fellow and that comes across. But on a more substantive level, there hasn't been a great deal of progress."

Indeed, a new Associated Press-Gfk poll found that the partisan divide on Obama's job approval rating has grown substantially during his first months in office as Republicans become ever more disgruntled with him. Still, Democrats give Obama a stunningly high favorable rating; independents also strongly back him.

Separately, the Pew Research Center says Obama has the most polarized early first-term job approval ratings of any president in the past four decades, part of a long-term trend of partisanship becoming more apparent in the measurement.

There's a 61 percentage point gap between Democratic and Republican opinions of Obama's job performance. Democrats are extraordinarily sweet on Obama, while Republicans are especially sour. The gaps were smaller at comparable periods for both Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Bill Clinton.

Exacerbated divisions
Obama won 53 percent of the popular vote with a coalition that spanned the ideological spectrum. But nearly half the country didn't vote for him and many still don't support him. Obama's job approval rating is in the low 60s. But Bush was at 62 percent at this point in 2001 and left office in the high 20s.

The new Democratic president is presiding over a country that has become more divided through the years — the Republican Party more conservative, the Democratic Party more liberal. Interest groups as well as a proliferation of new media outlets aligned with the right and left have exacerbated the divisions. So has Congress, where redistricting has created strongly Republican and solidly Democratic districts and where leadership promotes party discipline.

In such a polarized environment, Obama has had mixed success following through on his bipartisanship promise.

Given that bipartisanship is a two-way street, it's possible that Republicans are too resistant to working with the president, while Obama himself isn't willing to compromise enough. At the very least, there are deep and sincere differences between Republicans and Democrats, and they may be too difficult to overcome.

Republicans contend Obama hasn't delivered at all.

"I really had high hopes that he would really reach out and work with us," said Virginia Rep. Eric Cantor, the second-ranking House Republican. But, he said, "There has been very little follow through on that commitment."

The White House argues that Republicans are to blame.

"You can open up your door, extend your hand and invite people in, but if they don't want to come, you can't drag them," said David Axelrod, a senior Obama adviser. "That doesn't mean we're not going to keep trying."

Just after taking office, Obama visited Capitol Hill to meet with House and Senate GOP leaders in hopes they would back his first order of business — the economic stimulus measure combining tax cuts and new spending. He promised to listen to their ideas, and he later hosted a White House cocktail party and a Super Bowl party that included Republicans. Obama also reached out to GOP governors supportive of the measure, including Vermont's Jim Douglas, Florida's Charlie Crist and California's Arnold Schwarzenegger.

For all the courting, GOP critics on Capitol Hill said Obama wasn't listening and simply delegated the heavy lifting to congressional partisans, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.

As Republican opposition on Capitol Hill hardened, Obama shifted gears. He derided GOP ideas and embarked on a full-scale campaign to get the measure passed with or without bipartisan support, while his aides painted Republicans as obstructionists.

Diminishing returns
In the end, Obama failed to get the significant bipartisan backing he had sought. Still, he won over three Senate GOP moderates — critical votes that resulted in the measure's passage.

Since then, Obama hasn't made such a showy effort to win overwhelming Republican votes on other legislation — and he certainly hasn't gotten it.

No Republicans backed Obama's budget blueprint. Nor did many support equal pay legislation Obama sought. A minority of Republicans did, however, support a bill to expand government-sponsored health care coverage to 4 million more poor children.

In other cases, Obama has beaten the drum of bipartisanship with varying results.

He put two Republicans in his Cabinet and sought a third when he chose New Hampshire Sen. Judd Gregg as his commerce secretary. That lasted days, before Gregg changed his mind and dropped out. Obama then opted to play it safe, choosing former Washington Gov. Gary Locke, a Democrat.

At two other points, Obama convened diverse bipartisan groups to debate ways to restore "fiscal responsibility" in federal budgeting and to fix the costly health care system. It remains to be seen whether Democrats and Republicans will work together on those issues.

Obama's bipartisan talk notwithstanding, his White House has shown a willingness to emphasize party divisions. The Democratic Party frequently assails the GOP as "The party of no."

And, in March, White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, known as a brass-knuckles partisan, called Limbaugh the "intellectual force" of the GOP after the talk show host voiced his desire that Obama's economic policies would fail.

That week, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs referred to Limbaugh as "a national spokesperson for conservative views" and "the head of the Republican Party."

When a reporter noted that conflicted with Obama's disdain for "small ball" politics, Gibbs said, "It may be counterproductive. ... I'll plead guilty to counterproductivity."