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Barack Obama: A Divider, Not a Uniter Barack Obama: A Divider, Not a Uniter Barack Obama: A Divider, Not a Uniter Barack Obama: A Divider, ...

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Who Broke Washington?

Barack Obama: A Divider, Not a Uniter

Obama's biggest failing has been his inability to build relationships and make deals on Capitol Hill.

President Obama walks into the Rose Garden before delivering remarks about the launch of the Affordable Care Act's health insurance marketplaces and the first federal government shutdown in 17 years on Oct. 1.(Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

photo of Beth Reinhard
October 3, 2013

Mr. President,

We thought you were different, but you turned out to be like all the others. You promised hope and change, but we trust government even less than before. You offered a new brand of post-partisan governing, but the red states and blue states are farther apart than ever.

Washington was a mess when you arrived in January of 2009, but by breaking your promises and, frankly, our hearts, you made it worse.

 

You vowed to ban lobbyists from the White House only to sneak them in through loopholes.

You barred corporate donations to the first inauguration but let the special interest money rain down the second time around. You even learned to love super PACs.

How could you?

Signed,

Hopeless and Changed (for the worse)


"The Obama brand was presented to American public as a new and unifying force in American politics, but he's turned out to be an absolutely conventional politician," said Republican consultant Kevin Madden, who advised Mitt Romney's unsuccessful presidential campaigns in 2008 and 2012. "He's been very divisive."

This week's government shutdown represents a new low in Washington, reinforcing how little gets done and everyone hates each other. And while polls show that Republicans in Congress still get more of the blame, Americans are increasingly pointing the finger at the Oval Office.

A recent Bloomberg survey found that 40 percent blame the GOP for what's wrong in Washington, while 38 percent blame the president and congressional Democrats. Back in February, Obama had a nine-point edge over Republicans and independents were evenly divided over who was responsible. Now, 42 percent of independents fault with Obama and his allies in Congress, while 34 percent blame Republicans on Capitol Hill.

The latest CNN poll found a similar trend, with the percentage who blame congressional Republicans for a government shutdown down five points and the percent who blame Obama up three points.

"At some point when your team is losing, you don't blame the individual players. You blame the coach," said Republican lobbyist Vin Weber, a senior fellow at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota. "There's a flaw in leadership, whether it's because of ideology or inexperience."

Perhaps Obama's biggest failing has been his inability to build relationships and make deals on Capitol Hill--a shortcoming in sharp relief during the ongoing debate over a health care law that didn't win a single Republican vote. Even Democratic members complain they get short shrift from a detached White House and that Obama's crusade for the controversial health care law laid the groundwork for the rise of an intransigent tea party.

Longtime lobbyist Charlie Black noted that it was Vice President Joe Biden who reached a last-minute agreement with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to avoid the so-called fiscal cliff at the start of this year.

"The president wasted 17 months, and in one weekend the old pros made a deal," Black said. "All the president knows how to do is campaign and attack."

Republicans point to a few key moments in which the president's tone and timing inflicted damage. Only three weeks after a lofty inauguration speech, he ripped Republican critics of his economic stimulus plan at a Democratic retreat in 2009. "We're not going to get relief by turning back to the very same policies that, for the last eight years, doubled the national debt and threw our economy into a tailspin," he said. Two years later, he lit into the Republican deficit-reduction plan in a speech, as House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan awkwardly sat in the front row. Last month, just a few hours after the mass shooting at the Washington Navy Yard, the president unloaded on Republicans for failing to agree to a spending plan. "Are they really willing to hurt people just to score political points?" he demanded.

Obama's tendency to impugn Republican motives--instead of attributing conflict to a different view of the federal government's role or contrasting economic philosophy--has helped erode what little good will was left between the two parties when he took office.

"I was actually hopeful that somehow he would change the environment, but instead he exacerbated an already perilous situation," said former Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., chairman of the board of the American Action Network. "He offered the greatest opportunity and the greatest promise, and if you look at the distance from the promise to where we've descended, that says it all."

In fairness to Obama, few Republicans were willing to give him a chance. The remark that seemed to encapsulate the GOP's all-consuming hostility came from McConnell, who told National Journal in 2010: "The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president."

Obama's former deputy press secretary, Bill Burton, said it's impossible to reach compromises with tea-party conservatives seeking control of the Republican Party.

"There's a false idea that if the president spent more time playing golf with [House Speaker] John Boehner or having cocktails with [Sen.] Ted Cruz that all this animosity would be papered over," Burton said. "There have been no willing partners."

Who do you think broke Washington? Tell us here.

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