Obama's New Old Ways

The “post-partisan” presidency has turned out to be politics as usual.

Since Barack Obama began his presidential campaign, he has repeatedly promised American voters that he would usher in a fresh era of post-partisanship in Washington. His pledge to avoid falling into Washington's "politics as usual" was arguably the issue which most convinced disillusioned voters to vote yes for "change." President Obama continues to claim that his administration is uniquely open to bipartisan cooperation, yet there is a hefty bit of evidence to the contrary. The way Mr. Obama has gone about filling his administration and crafting the legislative agenda may be different from the way things were done in the past, but to call these changes post-partisan would be more than just a misnomer. In fact, the changes he has enacted thus far, with the new health-care-reform bill being by far the most obvious and sweeping example, have driven the president and policy makers alike further away from an era of post-partisanship and created more partisan gridlock than ever before.

Just two days after President Obama took office, he chose Illinois Representative Rahm Emanuel as his White House Chief of Staff. Mr. Emanuel earned his reputation as a ruthlessly partisan Democrat while serving in the Clinton White House and then later in the House leadership and was even posturing himself toward becoming the next Democratic Speaker of the House. His appointment was an action that directly contradicted the president's campaign calls for a post-partisan presidency.

President Obama also campaigned with the promise of installing a bipartisan cabinet. He allowed Republican Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to stay on board, and the Secretary of Transportation, Raymond LaHood, also pledges his allegiance to the party of pachyderms. But it is otherwise packed with party loyalists, and whether one can qualify a Democratic cabinet that includes a few nods toward Republicans as "bipartisan" is highly debatable.

When President Obama was a senator, he vocally criticized President Bush's recess appointment of Ambassador John Bolton to the United Nations. He was quoted as stating that Bolton was "damaged goods" and that he lacked credibility because he was never confirmed by the Senate. Just a few days ago, President Obama announced fifteen recess appointments-some of whom are highly controversial special-interest lobbyists-citing Republican obstructionism on these pending appointments as the reason for using his recess-appointment privilege. Political gridlock is frustrating, but using a bulldozer to flatten out the opposition does not fit into the picture of post-partisanship that Obama's campaign rhetoric painted in most minds.

Yet another broken promise is visible in President Obama's open engagement with special-interest groups and lobbyists. It is widely known that Obama has dozens of lobbyists engaged in day-to-day activities at the White House, despite his 2007 promise that, "One year from now, we have the change to tell all those corporate lobbyists that the days of them setting the agenda in Washington are over. I have done more to take on lobbyists than any other candidate in this race . . . and when I am president, they won't find a job in my White House." Four of his fifteen recess appointments are former Washington lobbyists, and they will find themselves mixed in with over forty other former lobbyists that now have prominent roles in Obama's administration.

Nowhere has the shallowness of President Obama's post-partisan vision been clearer than in the health-care-reform debacle. After publicly criticizing partisan bullying in Congress and speaking out specifically against "the notion that we should function sort of like Karl Rove where we identify our core base, we throw ‘em red meat, we get a 50-plus-one-victory," and promising on the campaign trail that "We are not going to pass universal health care with a 50-plus-one strategy," he succeeded in pushing through the most sweeping social reform bill our country has seen since Roosevelt's New Deal by one-upping Karl Rove. President Obama's decision to use the reconciliation process to pass the health-care-reform bill through the Senate, effectively prohibiting filibuster (and removing the need for any Republican yes-votes), is arguably more partisan than a 50-plus-one strategy. David Sanger of the New York Times captures the partisan character of this process succinctly, noting that "Never in modern memory has a major piece of legislation passed without a single Republican vote." President Obama changed that, but I am not sure that this is the type of change we want to believe in.

One cannot doubt that President Obama desires cooperation and compromise across the aisles of Congress; that would make any politician's job easier. "With the stakes so high," he noted in reference to the second stimulus bill's stalemate in the House, "we simply cannot afford the same old gridlock and partisan posturing in Washington. It's time to move in a new direction." Unfortunately, the new direction he has chosen seems to perpetuate Congressional gridlock. The president's chief political strategist, David Axelrod, noted in reference to the health care bill that "Ultimately, this is not about a process, it's about results." Although legislative shortcuts such as reconciliation and the use of recess appointments provide short-term results and get bills the votes they need to get passed, the long-term consequences of misappropriating rules meant to enforce checks on power as a way around the gridlock have quite possibly harmed President Obama's post-partisan vision beyond repair. Unfortunately for Obama, those are the results that Americans are beginning to see.


Elizabeth A. Sterling is a research associate at The Nixon Center.