February 2009 Issue
by Jay Gentile
JANUARY 20, 2009, WASHINGTON, DC — It’s mid-January in our nation’s capital, and something weird is going on: people are…I’m not quite sure how to put this…getting along. The cold gray streets of Washington are rampant with smiling strangers asking me how I am and where I’m from. Traffic is at a standstill and locating a public restroom is an enduring quest of quixotic proportions. Yet everyone seems to be too busy getting along to notice. Meanwhile over in the Senate, Barack Obama’s Cabinet choices are being confirmed with ease and on Jan. 15, senators voted to release the remaining $350 billion of the $700 billion in economic bailout funding to the incoming administration — and it hadn’t even been sworn in yet. With this much political goodwill being thrown around Washington this early, it seemed as if Barack Obama’s oft-mocked pie-in-the-sky notion of creating a new era of “post-partisanship” in Washington could in fact become the prevailing reality.
And on Inauguration Day, the post-partisan vibes continued to reverberate. “On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for too long have strangled our politics,” President Obama told a record-setting crowd estimated at 1.8 million people who packed into Washington’s National Mall on Jan. 20 to hear his 18-minute inaugural address and scream like madmen. “What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them — that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for too long no longer apply. The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works.”
So, is this the end of partisan politics? No more red state versus blue state? No more liberal versus conservative? No more demonization of the other side for holding political beliefs different from one’s own? Of course not. It’s gonna take more than a few speeches to kick that habit. But we seem to be off to a good start. According to a mid-January ABC News/Washington Post poll, 79% of Americans hold a favorable view of President Obama and 89% say he’s “willing to listen to different points of view.” Obama’s political image, according to the poll, is also more centrist than any president in over a generation. “In fact Barack Obama may well be the least ideological presidential candidate since Dwight Eisenhower,” said RealClearPolitics.com in an article titled “Barack The Cable Guy” — which declared that as “The Cable Guy”, Obama will do “whatever it takes to ‘get ‘er done’” in order to solve any given political problem…no matter which side of the ideological spectrum from which the given solution originates.
In another article called “The Pragmatist” from The Nation, pragmatism is described as the core of Obama’s management style as opposed to the perennially rigid ideology that guided President Bush throughout his presidency. “I’m not sure people understand how pragmatic he is,” Obama senior advisor Valerie Jarrett told USA Today. “He’s a pragmatist. He really wants to get things done.” Obama himself told “60 Minutes” that he didn’t want to “get bottled up in a lot of ideology” and that he was more interested in “finding something that works” when it comes to economic policy. Also cited in The Nation’s article is a quote from Pat Buchanan, who declared: “If there is a one root cause of Bush’s failures, it has been his fatal embrace of ideology.”
Indeed it seems that divisive hyper-partisanship steeped in left vs. right vilification of the opposition may be the biggest legacy of the Bush Administration, which fell victim to its own knee-jerk engagement in political warfare from start to finish. At his first inauguration on Jan. 20, 2001, George W. Bush was greeted with the jeers of 20,000 protestors — some of whom throw bottles and tomatoes at his motorcade during his inaugural procession from the Capitol Building to the White House. His motorcade was even pelted with an egg as it sped by protestors on a dismal, rainy Inauguration Day. It was no way to start a presidency, and it ended the same way — with people booing Bush and chanting “Na na na na / Na na na na / Hey hey hey / Goodbye” as the former president’s helicopter disappeared into a sunny sky en route to Texas immediately following Obama’s inauguration.
Then there was the sad sight of Dick Cheney in a wheelchair at the inauguration, having hurt his back a few days prior while moving boxes into his post-White House residence, and you couldn’t help but feel sorry for these guys. Then again, even with a significantly less bellicose and slightly more conciliatory second term, in the end Bush and Cheney reaped what they sowed. Perhaps a lesson can be learned that while divide-and-conquer Karl Rove-style politics may have proven adept at winning elections by just enough of a margin, it’s no way to run an effective government.
“What Obama is about is seeking an era where 20th century political polarization will be replaced by a 21st century era of political realism where practical consensus among partisans replaces ideological obstructionism,” continued the RealClearPolitics.com “Barack The Cable Guy” article. “That is not idealism, it is good politics.” Indeed, so far Obama seems to be winning over converts from the other side, whose support will be crucial in helping him pass his proposed $825 billion economic stimulus plan in the first real test of his bipartisan appeal over the next few weeks. Karl Rove called Obama’s economic team “reassuring” and Norman Ornstein of the conservative American Enterprise Institute told NPR that “we are actually seeing — for the first time in a long time — some actions that may or may not lead to a different kind of partisan dynamic in Washington.”
Presidents from John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush have always promised to work with the opposition party immediately following an election — and have always failed once the dirty business of governing got underway. Deals have to be made and in every compromise someone ends up disappointed, as the gay and lesbian community’s uproar over Obama’s tapping of conservative pastor Rick Warren to issue his inaugural invocation proved. Yet at the same time Obama appears to have the media in his corner, at least for now, which should help keep such distractions off the front burner. Take, for instance, Bill Richardson withdrawing his nomination for commerce secretary on Jan. 5 due to an ongoing corruption investigation. A major scandal-in-the-making, it seemed, yet the media barely noticed. If the media continues to refrain itself from overblowing sideshows like these, that can only help Obama in his efforts towards maintaining a post-inaugural bipartisan vibe in Washington.
Despite what should be a longer than usual political honeymoon period for the new administration, it seems unlikely that this post-partisan spirit will last. “Obama is not trying to lead America to an era of post partisanship,” the RealClearPolitics.com “Barack The Cable Guy” article concludes. “The whole fixation with post partisanship is ridiculous to begin with. Democracy can not survive without partisanship.” Indeed, House Republicans are already sharpened the knives for the upcoming battle over economic stimulus. “Oh my God,” said House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) after House Democrats unveiled preliminary plans for Obama’s $825 billion stimulus package on Jan. 15. “There was no Republican input at all involved in what House Democrats outlined today. I just can’t tell you how shocked I am at what we’re seeing. You know it’s clear that they’re moving on this path along the flawed notion that we can borrow and spend our way back to prosperity.” That’s certainly not the type of rhetoric one might expect to hear in a post-partisan government, especially while the minority party retains its power to block legislation through the filibuster.
At this point, the idea of installing a new era of post-partisanship in Washington looks like a pipe dream and a fairy tale. Then again, so did the Obama campaign at one point.