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Obama's Bipartisan Cred Isn't the Issue

5 years ago
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The White House briefing room is ground zero for a politerati fetish: bipartisanship. Sometimes it seems reporters at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. are obsessed with bipartisanship -- particularly whether President Obama is acting in a bipartisan manner. The day after Republican Scott Brown's upset win in the Massachusetts Senate race, several White House correspondents grilled press secretary Robert Gibbs on whether his boss would now proceed in a more bipartisan -- and compromising -- fashion, noting that Obama had not made good on his campaign vow to transcend the routine political bickering in the nation's capital.

Sheryl Gay Stohlberg of The New York Times zeroed in on this meme:
Robert, you talked a lot today about the anger and frustration that [carried] President Obama . . . into office and that has now carried Scott Brown into office. But part of that anger and frustration clearly was in anger at the partisan nature of Washington. And the president campaigned on a promise of bipartisanship, which he hasn't been able to fulfill. . . . Now, I know it goes both ways. So does he interpret the results of this election as, in essence, a judgment on that failure? Are people now angry at him for failing to fulfill his promise? And on health care, specifically, will he invite the Republican leaders of the House and Senate in to talk to them about health care? Or will he pursue a course of bipartisanship that basically involves moderates like Olympia Snowe?
Though Stohlberg did acknowledge that bipartisanship cannot emerge from merely one side, she seemed to be blaming Obama for failing to bring about a glorious era of comity and cooperation in Washington.

Reality check. The White House has tried to negotiate with congressional GOP moderates on health care -- much to the disgust of some progressives -- but Republican leaders have declared their mission is to kill health care reform. Moreover, the House Republican leadership in November hosted a rally on Capitol Hill, where Tea Party-like protesters compared Obama to Hitler, likened health care reform to Nazi death camps, claimed Obama takes his orders from the Rothchilds, decried the president as a traitor, depicted him as Sambo, and derided House Speaker Pelosi's looks. At that moment, the House Republican leadership -- all of whom were present -- essentially merged with a movement that gives open expression to racist and anti-Semitic sentiments. Not very bipartisan -- or civil. After this stunt, Obama would have been justified in barring House GOP leader John Boehner and his crew from the White House.

Yes, Obama did say he wanted to pursue a bipartisan approach to governing. He did name more Republicans to his Cabinet than George W. Bush named Democrats. (And don't forget about that odd Judd Gregg episode.) Still, the opposition has been intransigent. The Republicans certainly have the right to be as nasty as they want to be. But the mainstream media too often depict the conflicts of Washington in neutral tones that belie what's truly going on.

Bipartisanship is indeed a phony conceit tossed about by politicians on both sides, because they figure that voters like hearing this tune. And Obama and his aides are not above playing this game. Consequently, if one Republican legislator votes for a Democratic bill, they pronounce it bipartisan legislation. That's silly. Yet if one side is shouting "Nazi," and the other side is merely engaged in routine political shenanigans, it's not fair to pin the blame for partisanship on the latter or even to imply that the responsibility for the absence of bipartisanship is shared equally.

I don't intend to single out Stohlberg. Reporters, of course, are free to ask about whatever they deem significant. But it's been a common refrain among White House reporters: can't the president do more to be bipartisan? Another reporter on Wednesday asked if Obama, in order to be bipartisan, would now write a new health care bill with Republicans. Gibbs shot back:

We did that. Go back and look at the Finance Committee. I don't know how long [Democrat Sen.] Max Baucus spent with [Republican] Senator Grassley and Senator Enzi and others. That's -- there are, I forget the number, like 160 different amendments that had been adopted by Republicans into the Senate bill that ultimately passed the Senate. So the input of those that wanted input on the legislation, that's -- their input and imprint is there.

A third journalist asked Gibbs if Obama, in the pursuit of bipartisanship, would "reach out" to Scott Brown. Yet on Thursday, Brown, while touring the Capitol, was asked by a reporter to cite portions of the health care bill he could support. Echoing the talking points of his campaign, Brown only listed what he considered the flaws of the legislation. Where was his bipartisan spirit?

At Thursday's White House briefing, as Gibbs and economic adviser Austan Goolsbee were answering questions about Obama's new financial reform initiatives, CBS News' Chip Reid inquired if there was "a realistic hope of bipartisan support on this" -- as if the White House was once again not heeding the imperatives of bipartisanship. Yet earlier in the day, immediately after Obama announced these measures, Rep. Eric Cantor, the House minority whip, fired off a press release denouncing Obama's proposal, claiming it was an assault on the US economy. Cantor could have stated that he was concerned with the initiatives and wished to discuss them with the White House. Instead, he blasted away.

Democrats can behave this way, too. But this administration faces an opposition that is ideologically entrenched and associating with extremists. (Look what happened to Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham when he tried to work with Sens. John Kerry and Joe Lieberman on a clean energy bill.) With profound challenges still facing the nation, what counts is what Obama can achieve by out-maneuvering and surmounting this opposition. Washington is long past the point when the White House ought to be pressed to prove its bipartisan cred.

Politics Daily has recruited former George W. Bush administration official Peter Wehner to be a columnist, as editor-in-chief Melinda Henneberger puts it, "starring opposite David Corn." I'm flattered that it takes a former head of the White House office of strategic initiatives to provide balance to a mere journalist such as myself. I welcome Wehner to the fold and look forward to tussles ahead.

You can follow David Corn's postings and media appearances via Twitter.

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