Obama's Vow To Remake Washington A Tall Order

David Axelrod i i

President Obama's senior adviser, David Axelrod, says the president is changing the culture of Washington by easing what he called "gridlock" and "partisan rancor." Alex Wong/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Alex Wong/Getty Images
David Axelrod

President Obama's senior adviser, David Axelrod, says the president is changing the culture of Washington by easing what he called "gridlock" and "partisan rancor."

Alex Wong/Getty Images

The Obama Tracker

NPR's Obama Tracker charts significant events and developments in the new administration, as well as actions the president takes as he settles into the job.

One of President Obama's most prominent campaign promises was to change the way Washington worked. He wanted to change the partisan tone in the nation's capital and lessen the influence of lobbyists. Of all of his campaign promises, this was the most sweeping — some would say grandiose — but it was a constant theme of his campaign and of his inaugural address.

"On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics," he said.

A new era of responsibility. More transparency. No more partisan posturing or political gimmicks. It was a very tall order, but it fit the political spirit of the moment, and Obama has made some important down payments on that promise.

With a few exceptions, he's barred registered lobbyists from his administration, he has made the workings of his administration relatively more open to the public, and, says David Axelrod, the president's top political adviser, he's making Washington work better by getting things done.

"We've been so used to gridlock in this town — partisan rancor that was so deep, special interest influence that was so extensive — that you couldn't get anything done," Axelrod says. "Well, we've gotten a lot of things done in these first hundred days."

Obama has had an evolving approach to the opposition. After his early unrequited outreach to Republicans, he's changed his views about bipartisanship. Now, he's threatening to pass his health care bill with a parliamentary maneuver that eliminates the filibuster weapon Republicans might use in the Senate.

It is clear that passing the president's agenda is the priority and bringing Democrats and Republicans together is secondary.

"We're going to keep our eye on the ball," Axelrod says. "We'd love to have as many Republicans as want to join us, but if the Republicans take the position that they don't want to participate, then we need to move on."

This shift tells a lot about Obama, says Norm Ornstein, a political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute.

"Let's face it — Barack Obama, more than anything else, wants to succeed. And if he needs to play political hardball, he will," Ornstein says.

But there are other ways to measure how much the president has or hasn't changed the way Washington works. He's lowered the partisan heat of political debate and set a new civil tone, and he used relatively few gimmicks in his budget plan.

He actually provided a way to pay for some of his big priorities like health care and middle class tax cuts, but when Congress took that funding out and put budget gimmicks back in, the president didn't object. Neither did he fight back when Congress stuffed a spending bill with earmarks he had vowed to eliminate.

Giving in so quickly may come back to haunt the new president, says Ornstein.

"The more your rhetoric gets flowery in terms of how you're going to change the way Washington does business, the higher the standard to which you will be held, and the harsher the criticism for hypocrisy," he says.

Sometimes Obama doesn't live up to his own standards. For instance, he continues to insist that he's found $2 trillion of savings in the budget, even thought three-quarters of that comes from the bogus assumption that the Iraq war would cost as much as it did during the surge for the next 10 years.

"That one really made me wince, because that's the kind of behavior that candidate Obama would have ridiculed in the past," Ornstein says. "That is making a budget assumption that simply doesn't fit any definition of reality."

On the subject of changing how Washington works, Obama gives himself a grade of incomplete.

"I would like to think that everybody would say, 'You know what? Let's take a time-out on some of the political games, focus our attention for at least this year, and then we can start running for something next year.' And that hasn't happened as much as I would have liked," he said.

And while the results may be far from fulfilling, the president's conciliatory tone and his repeated message to the voters that he is just as disgusted with Washington as they are, makes for very good politics. It has won him high marks with the public, which can only help the president as he tries to enact all the promises he has made.

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