By Sam Youngman - 12/30/09 10:03 PM EST
President Barack Obama campaigned as the candidate who would work across the aisle and bring Republicans into the debate. But in his first year in office, he’s discovered it’s tough to change Washington.
Obama has reached out to GOPers on a number of issues, inviting Republican lawmakers to the White House to discuss the stimulus package, the war in Afghanistan and healthcare.
During the campaign, Obama said that Vice President Joe Biden would “be able to help me turn the page on ugly partisanship in Washington.” Obama described himself as “a big believer in working with the other side of the aisle.”
“Even if we've got a majority of Democrats, I think it’s very important to listen to Republicans, to respect them,” Obama said in the spring of 2008.
But almost immediately, Obama’s effort to pass a $787 billion stimulus package met with solid opposition from Republicans, who have continued to criticize spending they say has not produced enough jobs.
Obama’s offer of $300 billion in tax cuts in the stimulus as a way of attracting GOP support failed to win over recalcitrant lawmakers, even though the level of tax cuts came as a surprise at the time.
The divide only worsened as the healthcare debate wore on through the year and Tea Partiers and aspiring 2012 GOP candidates ratcheted up the rhetoric, accusing the president of everything from socialism to “death panels” for the elderly.
Republicans say they have tried valiantly to work with Obama by providing the president with ideas to improve the economy that aren’t focused on spending.
“You might remember that Senate Republicans began the year hopeful that the president would actually make good on his campaign promises to reach across the aisle and build consensus,” said one GOP aide, who argued the divide began with the stimulus.
“People were skeptical of Obama’s rhetoric, but nobody could have predicted the surge in partisanship that his administration would wage over the first year. And their fierce partisan approach has become a major reason why independent voters are sprinting away from Democrats.”
Republicans did approach the administration with ideas for ways to stimulate the economy, the aide said, “ideas like fixing housing, reducing taxes on job creators and limiting spending to projects that would create jobs quickly.”
“Democrats didn’t take any of our ideas, and the stimulus has been a huge disappointment to unemployed Americans who were told it would help them get a job,” the aide said. “So when the healthcare debate began late in the spring, Republicans were naturally skeptical that the administration would earnestly seek input.”
But administration officials said that Obama has sought to include Republicans at every turn, even as the minority party has made clear that it has no interest in helping Obama get anything done.
“The president has repeatedly gone to great lengths to give Republicans in Congress a seat at the table as he’s confronted some of the difficult issues that Washington has ignored for too long," one senior administration official said. “Unfortunately, time and again, Republicans have put their political and partisan interests ahead of the nation’s and refused the president’s invitation to find common ground.”
Administration officials have repeatedly pointed to a February incident when Obama headed to Capitol Hill to talk with both parties about the stimulus. Before the president even made it to the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue for the meeting, the GOP issued a press statement rebuking Obama and criticizing his plans for the stimulus.
There have been some examples of bipartisanship in the first year of Obama’s White House, an administration official noted.
The vote to confirm Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor was bipartisan, contracting reform enjoys the support of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and many Republicans have applauded the president's new strategy for Afghanistan.
Republican strategist Kevin Madden said that Obama's talk of bipartisan outreach has “been all pageantry but no practice.”
“They gave up at the first sign of opposition,” Madden said.
But Ross Baker, an expert on the presidency and a professor at Rutgers University, said that Obama's “effort was a sincere one.”
“It's sort of like a missionary who goes to a primitive tribe and tries to convert them from cannibalism and ends up eating human beings,” Baker said.
Heading into the midterm election year of 2010, voices from all sides agree that there is little hope that Obama and Republicans will be able to find common ground in the new year.
“It will get worse until the first Tuesday after the first Monday of next November, when voters will have a chance to express their outrage with the Democratic supermajority,” the Senate GOP aide said.
But the White House said Obama isn't giving up.
“The president will continue to look for ways to work with Republicans in Congress not because it’s easy – it hasn’t been — but because he believes it’s in the best interests of the country,” a senior administration official said.