House Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio (center) looks on as President Obama talks to House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland. Obama has said he hopes for more bipartisanship next year, but Republicans see the coming election as a sign that Americans don't want Congress to sign on to the Obama agenda.
House Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio (center) looks on as President Obama talks to House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland. Obama has said he hopes for more bipartisanship next year, but Republicans see the coming election as a sign that Americans don't want Congress to sign on to the Obama agenda. Charles Dharapak/AP
As President Obama travels the country urging Democrats to vote in the midterms, he summarizes the past two years this way: Republicans drove the economy into the ditch, he says time and again; then they decided not to help the Democrats dig it out.
"Every once in a while, we look up, and the Republicans are up there on the road. They're just waving," he said in Seattle last week. "They're going around whispering to everybody, 'They're not pushing hard enough. They're not pushing the right way.' And we say to them, 'Well, why don't you come down here and help push?'
'No, no, no, no. But push harder, push harder!' "
According to Obama's storyline, Republicans made a savvy political calculation to sit on the sidelines. And lately he has been telling people that he expects a different dynamic next year — although, in Tuesday's election, Democrats will almost certainly lose seats in Congress.
"My hope is that as we look forward — let's say on education or on energy, some of things that we haven't yet finished — that we're going to have a greater spirit of cooperation after this next election," he said during a recent MTV town hall discussion.
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The president has said the same thing in interviews, as has his press secretary, Robert Gibbs. But some veteran political observers wonder where that belief in bipartisanship comes from.
"I think anyone who made the calculation that obstructionism would work in the first two years of the administration isn't going to change their math during the second two years of the administration," says Eric Mogilnicki, who was chief of staff to the late Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy.
Kennedy was known as a liberal lion who could also reach across the aisle to work with Republicans on legislation. Mogilnicki says that's partly because Kennedy had long personal relationships built on trust with many senators from both parties.
"If you look at the Senate now and the Senate as it's probably going to look in January, there are an awful lot of people who are new to the Senate and who have no particular allegiance to its traditions and are not going to be looking for ways to compromise," he says. "They're going to be looking for ways to make a political point."
Even on the Democratic side, moderates such as Byron Dorgan and Evan Bayh are leaving, making for a less centrist caucus. And liberal activists have already criticized Obama for caving too much to his centrist impulses.
On the Republican side, Tea Party-backed candidates who came to power without the help of the Republican Party leadership have little incentive to cooperate with the establishment now.
And Republicans see this election as a sign that Americans don't want Congress to sign on to the Obama agenda.
"This is not a time for compromise, and I can tell you that we will not compromise on our principles," House Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio said on conservative broadcaster Sean Hannity's radio show this week. If Republicans take control of the House after next week's elections, Boehner will most likely be the next majority leader.
Jack Howard, who was the White House's liaison to Congress in both Bush presidencies, says he thinks the lesson coming out of this election "is that the Republicans would expect the president to work with them on their agenda."
If Obama believes Republicans will come onboard with the White House agenda next year, the president has it backwards, says Howard, who also worked for House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott. "If the White House takes from this that we're going to spend the next two years doing more of the same, then they're not going to get anywhere," he says.
The prospects for bipartisanship seemed to dim even further this week when the top Senate Republican, Mitch McConnell, told the National Journal, "The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president."
Democrats are running with that, repeating McConnell's quote as part of their election strategy in the last days of the midterm campaign.
Even some senior White House officials seem to think the president's dream of bipartisanship will evaporate in the daylight.
"Now, it could be that on Election Day, a lightning bolt will come down and the skies will then open and people will be imbued with a new sense of responsibility and public-spiritedness," adviser David Axelrod told reporters at the White House last week, "and I hope that's true. But I think it's fair to say that these guys have made it very, very clear that they want to roll the clock back, and we've made it very clear ... we are fighting to stop them from doing it."
That could just be pre-election partisanship. Or it could be a sign that Washington's kumbaya moment is a bit further off than Obama suggests.