The astonishingly truculent response of House Republican Leader John Boehner and other prominent conservatives to Barack Obama's election is offering the president-elect a huge opportunity to consolidate his victory and expand his coalition -- provided he is tough enough to discipline the most-partisan voices in his own base.
Conservatives appear locked in denial about the depth of their defeat. Obama attracted a higher share of the vote than all but one Democratic presidential nominee since World War II and produced Democratic House and Senate majorities larger than Republicans ever enjoyed during their years of control from 1994 to 2006. In his attack on Obama's appointment of Rahm Emanuel as White House chief of staff and in a belligerent recent Washington Post op-ed in which he promised to start "vigorously fighting ... [Obama's] far-left agenda," Boehner signaled that he is adopting a shoot first, aim later strategy driven by the Right's demand for scorched-earth resistance.
If congressional Republicans follow Boehner and conservative militants like Rush Limbaugh down such a path, they could allow Obama to build alliances with the most-pragmatic elements of the GOP and the business community at a time when the Republican coalition is already contracting.
To seize that opportunity, Obama would need to overcome the objections of liberal Internet activists who are condemning as capitulation any effort to find accommodation with Republicans or the interests they represent. But outreach from Obama wouldn't be a form of altruism, much less a concession to the post-election conservative insistence that America remains a right-tilting country. Instead, it would be a hard-headed strategy for expanding his own coalition by dividing the GOP's. Systematically reaching out beyond his core supporters is Obama's best hope of advancing his policy agenda and of delivering on his overarching promise to bridge America's partisan and ideological divides.
What would a strategy of inclusion entail for President Obama? It would start with appointing compatible Republicans (such as retiring Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska) and independents to high-profile positions. Shrewd presidents from Franklin Roosevelt to Ronald Reagan have recognized that such appointments can valuably expand the range of advice they receive and send powerful signals to wavering voters in the other party.
Next, Obama could try to build bipartisan momentum by resurrecting recent legislative initiatives that attracted preponderant support among Democrats and substantial backing among Republicans but were blocked by President Bush or conservative-led filibusters. First on that list could be expansion of the State Children's Health Insurance Program for the working poor. A parallel approach would expedite executive actions with transparty appeal, such as approving a Bush-blocked federal waiver allowing states to regulate greenhouse-gas emissions from cars, an idea supported by the Republican governors of California, Connecticut, Florida, and Utah.
On many issues, the initial impulse of most Hill Republicans will probably be to oppose Obama. The last two elections have decimated congressional GOP moderates. More dominated than ever by conservatives, the congressional Republicans won't be inclined to cooperate with Obama unless they believe they must. That's why he would be smart to reach around GOP elected officials and engage directly with interests that usually ally with Republicans -- oil, automobile, and utility companies on energy; insurers and small-business owners on health care.
One of the most intriguing developments in Bush's second term was the proliferation of ideological odd-couple coalitions of business, labor, and liberal interest groups (such as Divided We Fail on health care and the U.S. Climate Action Partnership on global warming). So far, these groups have mostly sputtered, but they retain potential because they represent a broad hunger for progress on problems long stalemated by partisan gridlock. Obama could tap that power by involving these alliances in his policy deliberations. By strengthening his ties to business, he could put pressure on congressional Republicans inclined toward reflexive opposition.
None of this requires Obama to abandon his principles. Elections have consequences, and the magnitude of the Democratic victory shifts the entire spectrum of debate toward that party's priorities. But a strategy of inclusion would require Obama to show flexibility in addressing the needs of voters and interests beyond his coalition -- an approach that would inevitably be met with resistance from the most-ardent activists within it. For Obama, as for all presidents, disciplining the coalition that elected him will be the first step toward enlarging it.
This article appears in the November 15, 2008 edition of National Journal Magazine.
Don't Miss Today's Top Stories
Chock full of usable information on today's issues."
Michael, Executive Director
Concise coverage of everything I wish I had hours to read about."
Chuck, Graduate Student
The day's action in one quick read."
Stacy, Director of Communications
Great way to keep up with Washington"
Ray, Professor of Economics