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Legacy Content / OFF TO THE RACES

Obama's Friction Points

Where The President Rubs Washington The Wrong Way, He's Not The One Getting Burned Where Voters Are Concerned

March 10, 2009

Despite President Obama's historic election, the hoopla around his victory obscures significant elements of his election and message. When Obama first began running for president, many observers reasonably questioned his experience, given that he was barely two years removed from the Illinois Legislature.

Obama argued that while he hadn't been in Washington long, he had been there long enough to see that it didn't work and not long enough to be contaminated or seduced by its ways. On the surface, that sounds like some fancy footwork, trying to turn lemons into lemonade. No doubt it was a self-serving argument, but maybe there was some truth to it.

What we've seen emerge from his presidency are three broad themes, or friction points, with the Washington political establishment: party, ideology and reform.

 

If you graphed the partisan views of the American people, it would look much more like a bell curve than the bimodal distribution of our two parties.

The American people sent a clear message of change by choosing Obama over a wide variety of other choices. In fact, in each of these three areas, Obama's opposition exists as much in his own party as on the Republican side, as much among liberals as conservatives, as much from those in power today as those who were in power when Republicans held the White House and controlled the House and Senate.

The first is grandly called by some "post-partisanship," an effort to reach beyond party lines to achieve policy objectives. Voters weren't just looking to replace partisan Republicans with partisan Democrats or knee-jerk conservatives for knee-jerk liberals or one group of insiders and status quo enablers for another.

In 2008, Gallup polls showed 36 percent of adults considered themselves Democrats, 36 percent independents and 28 percent Republicans. When you "push" independents to lean to one side, most go to Democrats, pushing them just over 50. But, these people consider themselves first and foremost independents.

These independents cheer when Obama reaches out to Republicans and jeer when he is rebuffed. When they hear Democrats complain about his efforts to reach out to Republicans, they wonder if those partisan, liberal Democrats are any better than Republicans.

Many congressional Democratic leaders see bipartisanship as, at best, simply rhetoric and posturing. Others see it as a nuisance and a waste of time, a sign of weakness and unwillingness to fight or simply a mistake.

"We won; they lost; we get to run the show, just as they did when they were in power," seems to be the thinking. They even tend to see politics as a struggle between right and wrong, good and evil, and think there is no good to come from compromising with those who are evil or wrong.

Republicans in Congress see Obama's efforts as cheap political tricks and gestures, believing he is just pretending to show bipartisanship and that the actions of Democratic leaders are how Obama really feels. They don't see that when they reject an Obama entreaty, independents watch and say, "Obama 1, Republicans 0."

It has become too tempting to stuff politicians into ideological pigeonholes. While some fit comfortably into those assigned to them, others do not.

Obama seems more of a pragmatist than a liberal, populist or centrist. Witness the backing off on "Buy American" provisions in the stimulus and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's brush-off of liberals' criticism on human rights while she was visiting Beijing. Many of Obama's Cabinet appointments and senior adviser picks project experience more than any ideological view.

Take, for example, his economic policy team: Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, Chief Economic Adviser Larry Summers, Economic Recovery Board Chairman Paul Volcker, National Economic Council Deputy Director Jason Furman -- nary a Robert Reich in the bunch. Instead, a group of pragmatists who could have been handpicked by former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin.

Or the national security team: Defense Secretary Robert Gates; National Security Adviser James Jones. These aren't the picks of a liberal.

If you graphed the partisan views of the American people, it would look much more like a bell curve than the bimodal distribution -- the "camel with two humps" shape -- of our two parties and their political dialogue. The majority is between the 30-yard lines, and they'd like to see their government there, too.

While independents are more sympathetic and ideologically closer to Democrats, it is hardly carved in stone. Identifying with independents is central to governing, as former President George W. Bush and Republicans so painfully learned.

That brings us to the transformational part. There is one constant, regardless of whether the White House is occupied by a Democrat or a Republican, or which party controls Congress. Over the last 50 years, Americans have grown increasingly disillusioned with Washington. Things happen because that is the way it has always been, whether or not it is the right or best way.

Take the fight over earmarks: federal funds distributed on the basis of the seniority, the committee assignments or the clout of lawmakers, rather than on merit. It's not where the money would be best or most effectively spent, but who is asking for it.

This could be one of Obama's greatest challenges, changing the way Washington decides how money is spent.

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