Barack Obama: A Divider, Not a Uniter

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

U.S. President Barack 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 at the White House October 1, 2013 in Washington, DC. House Republicans and Senate Democrats continue to volley legislation back and forth as they battle over a budget to keep the government running and delaying or defunding 'Obamacare.'
National Journal
Beth Reinhard
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Beth Reinhard
Oct. 3, 2013, 2 a.m.

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?


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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