On the January night in 2008 when he won the Iowa caucuses, Barack Obama delivered a victory speech that would reverberate forcefully across a divided America. Iowans, he said, had come together — Democrats, Republicans and independents — to stand as one in calling for a new politics of unity and hope. It was a message that would help carry him to the White House 10 months later.
“You said the time has come to move beyond the bitterness and pettiness and anger that’s consumed Washington,” the then-senator from Illinois said that winter night in Des Moines. “To end the political strategy that’s been all about division and instead make it about addition. To build a coalition for change that stretches through red states and blue states. We are choosing hope over fear. We’re choosing unity over division and sending a powerful message that change is coming to America.”
Today Obama’s words sound quaint, even naive. Instead of bipartisanship, there is polarization as deep as it has been in modern times. Instead of cooperation, there is confrontation. Instead of civility, there is rudeness. The political system seems frozen and more resistant to compromise than ever. Two months before the 2012 election, the campaign has become an all-or-nothing battle over the future direction of the country.
Obama’s reelection is threatened most by the state of the economy. But he also could be hurt because of the disappointment felt by voters who invested so heavily in what he seemed to offer four years ago and for whom expectations were raised to stratospheric heights. That is part of the matrix of the choice in November.
Why has President Obama fallen so far short of what he so passionately described as a candidate four years ago? To the partisans on both sides, the answers are simple — and fundamentally at odds.
The president’s advisers contend that Republicans chose the course of obstruction and intransigence from the day Obama was sworn in.
“We met an implacable opponent in the Republican leadership,” said David Axelrod, senior strategist for Obama’s reelection campaign and former White House senior adviser. “They made a decision, and they’ve been very open about it, that from Day One they weren’t going to cooperate on any major issue.”
To Republicans, it is the story of a president who arrived in Washington with big majorities in the House and Senate and decided to ram through a series of liberal initiatives with little regard to the ideas or sensibilities of the other party.
“Their agenda for the first two years was, ‘Let’s go down our to-do list and move the country to the left as fast as we can,’ ” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer said there has been a misunderstanding of just what Obama was talking about in 2008 when he called for a new politics.
“The president didn’t promise an era of kumbaya politics in which everyone agreed,” he said. “The primary thing he talked most about was that politicians too often ran from big problems that had haunted our country for decades. Whether folks like it or not, he did jump in and take on very big problems with full knowledge that they would have political consequences for him.”
That Obama ran into a wall of opposition from the Republicans on many of those initiatives is indisputable. What is at odds in these varying interpretations is whether anything might have changed that. Republicans say it could have been different. But there is little evidence that, once their leadership decided to oppose Obama, there was much he could have done to win them over — and there are plenty of examples showing how dug in they were.
There are also questions about how hard Obama tried. His advisers cannot point to a clear strategy for trying to create a climate of cooperation — other than their belief that the support he won in the election and the economic crisis would create those conditions. They argue that he incorporated Republican ideas into the stimulus and spent months waiting to see if a bipartisan health-care plan would emerge from the Senate Finance Committee.
He also missed or passed up opportunities to show his willingness to challenge the status quo. And there is not much evidence that, as things turned sour, there was a fallback strategy for how to change the climate. Through the first 21/2 years, there were ongoing efforts toward accommodation, but he found no way to break through the divisions. When the debt-ceiling negotiations collapsed amid recriminations on both sides, Obama decided to move virtually full time into campaign mode.
Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine), who spent hours in discussions with the president and his advisers over health care and stimulus, said she believes Obama truly wanted to change the political climate.