Obama's Vow To Remake Washington A Tall Order 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. After more than three months in office, how has he fared?
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Obama's Vow To Remake Washington A Tall Order

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Obama's Vow To Remake Washington A Tall Order

Obama's Vow To Remake Washington A Tall Order

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Now, before he became President Obama, candidate Barack Obama said he would bring change to Washington, said he wanted to do away with the partisan tone and less in the influence of lobbyists.

NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson reports now on how the president has done so far.

MARA LIASSON: Of all the promises Barack Obama made, his vow to change the political culture in Washington was one of the most sweeping, some might say grandiose. But it was a constant theme of his campaign and his inaugural address.

(Soundbite of political speech)

President BARACK OBAMA: On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations, and worn-out dogmas that far too long have strangled our politics.

LIASSON: 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 Mr. Obama has made some important down payments on that promise. With a few exceptions, he's barred registered lobbyists from his administration. He's made the workings of the government relatively more open to the public. And, says the president's top political advisor, David Axelrod, he's making Washington work better by getting things down.

Mr. DAVID AXELROD (President Obama's Chief Political Advisor): 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. Well, we've gotten a lot of things done in these first hundred days.

LIASSON: President Obama has had an evolving approach to the opposition. After his early, unrequited outreach to Republicans, he's changed his view 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's clear that passing the president's agenda is the priority. Bringing Democrats and Republicans together is secondary.

David Axelrod.

Mr. AXELROD: We're going to keep our eye on the ball. 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.

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

Mr. NORM ORNSTEIN (Political Analyst, 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.

LIASSON: 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's 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.

Mr. ORNSTEIN: The more your rhetoric gets flowering in terms of all that you're going to do to change the way Washington does business, the higher the standard to which you will be held and the harsher the criticism for hypocrisy.

LIASSON: Sometimes, Mr. Obama himself 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 though 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. Once again, Norm Ornstein.

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

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

Pres. OBAMA: 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.

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

Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.

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