This episode comes from an early review of Alter’s book, which hits stores today. The book sets out to explain how Obama went from a 2010 midterm whipping at the hands of Republicans to a successful 2012 re-election bid. While a worthy subject, the bigger question (and the one with implications for the nation) deals with the inability of a Democratic president and Republican members of Congress to find common ground.
When Obama took office in early 2009, the economy was in awful shape. Americans suffering in the middle of the Great Recession needed immediate help from their government.
Yet, Republicans immediately made a show of wanting to end Obama’s presidency after one term (“the most important thing we want to achieve,” in the words of Mitch McConnell, the top Republican in the Senate).
From the start, Obama could not break through the wall of inaction. Was he incapable of granting the Republicans a brand of Washington duality — allowing them to (a.) talk tough and (b.) quietly negotiate at the same time?
Washington observers have cited any number of former chief executives — Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, Lyndon Johnson — as positive examples of how a president can cajole, bargain, harass or charm the loyal opposition to the bargaining table. Invite them to the White House, the pundits advise, wine ‘em, dine ‘em, make ‘em feel special. No matter what, don’t take all the rhetoric personal.
Whether Obama has thick skin or thin skin or whether he lacks the warm personality to persuade the opposition to drop its guard, it’s obvious he hasn’t been able to bridge the divide.
Some observers note that Republican opposition may be doing more than merely playing to the cameras. The constituents who voted those Republicans into Congress possess a genuine dislike of Obama; hatred may be a better word. Polling consistently shows that Republican intensity is at such a fever pitch that even four-plus years into his presidency Obama is still considered an illegitimate occupant of the White House. Given this, few Republicans are willing to sell bipartisanship to the folks back home. As House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, made clear in a 60 Minutes interview in 2010, compromise is a dirty word.
The silver lining in this cloud, if there is one, is that the nation is no less challenged than it was when Obama became the 44th U.S. president. Republicans and Democrats don’t lack for incentives to work together to tackle employment, the economy, the future of energy production or climate change, to cite a few examples. They do lack grassroots pressure to get them moving.