Obama Seeks To Bridge Partisan Divide When he was running for president, Barack Obama presented himself as a postpartisan figure. He promised to bridge barriers of ideology and party. Whether he can hammer out the grand bargains needed to pass his big reforms will be a key test.
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Obama Seeks To Bridge Partisan Divide

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Obama Seeks To Bridge Partisan Divide

Obama Seeks To Bridge Partisan Divide

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People who made it through the crowds got a glimpse of the first black man elected president, standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, delivering a brief speech yesterday. During his campaign, Barack Obama presented himself as a post-partisan figure. Promised to build bridges, said he wanted to span not only the divide of race and culture but also the divide of ideology and party. Now, it's becoming clear what President-elect Obama's post-partisanship means in practice, as NPR's Mara Liasson reports.

MARA LIASSON: Since the election, Barack Obama's rhetoric hasn't changed. He's still trying to position himself above or outside the traditional partisan divide, especially when he talks about the economic crisis.

(Soundbite of speech)

President-elect BARACK OBAMA: This is not a Republican problem or a Democratic problem at this stage. This is an American problem, and we're all going to have to…

LIASSON: And that sounds a lot like other presidents, says Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute. Ornstein has spent his career analyzing the corrosive effects of partisanship in Washington.

Professor NORMAN J. ORNSTEIN (Political Scientist; Resident Scholar, American Enterprise Institute): Let's face it, we've had presidential candidates and presidents frequently talk about how they were going to bring in a new era to bring us together.

LIASSON: There was Richard Nixon, whose slogan was "Bring Us Together"; Gerald Ford, who promised an era of compromise, conciliation and cooperation; George H. W. Bush, who was kinder and gentler; and George W. Bush, who wanted to change the tone. But nothing really changed in Washington until - maybe - now, says Ornstein, who is getting ready to set aside his cynicism on the subject.

Professor ORNSTEIN: What we've seen, at least in this interregnum period before Barack Obama takes office, is, it seems to be more than just rhetoric. We are actually seeing, for the first time in a long time, some actions that may or may not lead to a different kind of partisan dynamic in Washington.

LIASSON: First, there were the symbolic gestures of inclusion - like inviting evangelical pastor Rick Warren to give the invocation at the inaugural ceremony on Tuesday, and gay Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson to deliver the invocation at the inaugural concert on Sunday. Then there's the Cabinet - not exactly a national unity government, but it does have plenty of centrist Democrats and high-profile veterans of the outgoing Republican administration, like defense secretary nominee Bob Gates, and General Jim Jones for national security adviser.

Last week, Mr. Obama was adamant that when it came to his economic stimulus package, he had no pride of authorship, no preference for a Democratic or a Republican idea - just a good idea.

President-elect OBAMA: If it works better than something I've proposed, I'll welcome it. What is not an option is for us to sit and engage in posturing or the standard partisan fights when the American people are out there struggling.

LIASSON: The president-elect has received high marks from the GOP leadership for giving them a chance to consult, if not collaborate. And to get Republican votes, he added $300 billion worth of tax cuts, almost 40 percent of the total stimulus package. That's something that left former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich impressed, and wondering whether the new president will fight to keep them.

Prof. NEWT GINGRICH (Former Republican House Speaker, U.S. House of Representatives): If they can convince liberal Democrats to drop $300 billion in tax cuts in with $700 billion in spending increases, you know, for liberal Democrats, that's a pretty darn good ratio of tax cuts. And I think you have to stop and say, well, let me rethink this. When Obama does something smart, we ought to be for it. We ought to applaud him when he does something that's truly - shows unusual leadership. And when they do things that are destructive or left wing, we ought to be pretty tough about it.

LIASSON: And no doubt, there will be plenty of opportunity for that, because no matter how civil and inclusive Washington becomes, traditional ideological divisions are real and in many cases, meaningful. And the Obama teams insists that being a post-partisan is not the same thing as being a centrist on all issues, or meeting your opponents halfway every time. Here's how transition director John Podesta defines the Obama style of post-partisanship.

Mr. JOHN PODESTA (President, Center for American Progress; Former White House Chief of Staff): I would not describe that at all as splitting the difference, but he's open to talking to Republicans and trying to bring them on board to try to help shape that program, to try to get by, and try and look for ideas across political spectrum.

LIASSON: Buy-in is a big concept with the Obama team. On his very first piece of legislation, the economic stimulus, he's trying to pass a big bill with big bipartisan majorities. And for that, Mr. Obama needs buy-in from both sides. That, in turn, will help lay the political groundwork for his next two big items: transforming the health-care system, and the way Americans consume energy. And, says Norm Ornstein, whether a President Obama can hammer out the grand bargains needed to pass his big reforms will still be the most important test for this self-styled, post-partisan politician.

Professor ORNSTEIN: No matter how skillful you are at giving something to everybody, no matter how much they feel that they are inside the tent, it's still going to come down to performance. Can you get things passed, enacted into law, and have them begin to have an impact in the country and the world?

LIASSON: On Tuesday, President-elect Obama becomes President Obama and starts working in earnest to accomplish that goal. Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.

INSKEEP: And we'll have live coverage of the inauguration tomorrow on NPR News.

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