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This isn't the change Barack Obama promised

WASHINGTON — In a park near the U.S. Capitol, hundreds protested the health care reform effort. "Kill the bill," they shouted. "Kill the bill. Kill the bill."

Some waved poster-sized photos of President Barack Obama with a Hitler moustache. A grim reaper whipped blood-spattered people dressed as Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid, the Democratic leaders of the House and Senate.

Across the street, Republican senators sat down for a salmon lunch complaining that Democrats were ignoring them on health care. Democrats weren't even in the building; they were at the White House, huddling with the president.

This isn't the change Obama promised.

His vision of bipartisanship, transparency and an end to the "pettiness and immaturity that has poisoned our politics for so long" — as he confidently said on Election Night — has been trampled by the right and the left.

The situation reflects the reality of modern politics, conflict-driven news cycles, increasingly savvy attack campaigns by political parties and legitimate differences over policy.

But it also may be a symptom of the president's failure to take charge on the big initiatives of his first year in office, Democrats and Republican observers say.

A contemplative, if ambiguous, Obama has subcontracted parts of his presidency to Congress. The results have been starkly one-sided votes on the stimulus, energy policy and health care.

"The president has not been very specific about what he wants, and that has made worse this very nasty partisan fighting," said Steve Bell, visiting scholar with the Bipartisan Policy Group in Washington and former top aide to Sen. Pete V. Domenici, R-N.M.

"He had an opportunity," Bell added. "He had Republicans on their heels and scared. But he didn't use it."

The White House says it is too early to judge and points to bipartisan efforts. A spokesman said there have been 1,000 invitations to Republicans to events and policy meetings and noted the decision to retain President George W. Bush's defense secretary, Robert Gates, and naming former GOP Rep. Ray LaHood as transportation secretary.

"It puts an unfair burden of expectation on the president that he's going to change the decades-old political culture in 11 months," communications director Dan Pfeiffer said. "He's working on it. We're working on it."

• • •

The aspiration was not new.

Bush entered office in 2001 as a "uniter, not a divider" and early on enjoyed bipartisan support for the No Child Left Behind education reform. Obama, though, made it seem more genuine, distilling the promise into a single word: change.

His decisive victory capped a remarkable run for Democrats, who now control the House and Senate. The success, ironically, explains some of the divisiveness.

Obama empowered Speaker Pelosi and other liberal members of the House by deferring to Congress to work out the details of the stimulus, energy policy and health care reform.

On health care in particular, Obama wanted to avoid mistakes of the past. President Bill Clinton failed in part because he and his wife crafted a massive, detailed plan largely in secret and then sent it to Congress to approve.

With a solid majority in the House — not bound by the same rules that result in Senate filibusters — legislation could afford to be more sweeping, progressive.

Obama "unleashed the left," Bell said.

But the House health care bill failed to draw support of more conservative Democrats and got only one Republican. That set up a precarious climate in the Senate, where Democrats are more moderate. Major differences over abortion, immigration and a government-run plan still exist between the two chambers.

• • •

Meanwhile, Democratic triumphs of recent election cycles left a listless, confused GOP that has reacted by shifting to the right. Compromise was out, "You lie" style conservatism was in.

"They've weeded out the moderates," said Charles Stenholm, a former Democratic House member from Texas who often crossed party lines.

Not a day goes by without a barrage of Republican e-mail attacks or cable TV appearances. Democrats punch as well, turning out attack spots against Republican incumbents who vote against their bills. Some try to match the vitriol, such as Democratic Rep. Alan Grayson of Orlando, who has belittled Republicans as "knuckle-dragging Neanderthals."

"Two parties are good. Opposition is good. What we do need and what we do lack is civility," said Stephen Hess, who worked in the Eisenhower and Nixon administrations and advised Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter.

"It was either unusually idealistic or naive or arrogant … (for Obama) to believe he had the capacity to bring these disparate sides together," Hess said.

Lawmakers differ on who is to blame. "When your opposition is the 'Party of No,' bipartisanship is virtually impossible," said Democratic Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Weston.

Countered Republican Rep. Adam Putnam of Bartow: "The White House is organized as if it was still running the campaign. At some point, the campaign ends and you have to govern."

• • •

Like Obama's designs on post-partisanship, he also pledged transparency. The White House has taken steps to open its visitor logs and pushed other accountability measures. But on health care he has failed to deliver in full.

Obama said he would foster open health care talks and televise them on C-SPAN "so that people can see who is making arguments on behalf of their constituents, and who are making arguments on behalf of the drug companies or the insurance companies."

"He shouldn't have pledged that during the campaign if he didn't mean it," said Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican who ran against Obama.

Sen. Max Baucus, the Montana Democrat who controls the Senate Finance Committee, brought Republicans into the fold during early discussions, but closed-door meetings have dominated the final talks.

"It's hard to be bipartisan when you're not in the room," said Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H.

Gregg, who this year withdrew his name for consideration as Obama's commerce secretary, has emerged as a leading critic, even circulating a memo instructing colleagues on how to delay the health care debate.

Sen. Olympia Snowe, a moderate Republican from Maine, said that after the stimulus package failed to gain Republican support, she urged Obama to be more active in framing health care. "He should have weighed in at the outset," Snowe said.

The White House said it is confident Obama's strategy will prove right.

"If and when the president signs health reform it will be the greatest legislative achievement since Lyndon Johnson sat in the Oval Office," said Pfeiffer, the White House spokesman.

But unlike some of the other landmark policies of this country — Medicare and Social Security — it will come without wide bipartisan support.

Some say Obama should find a lesson in that as he moves past the first moments of his term.

In an opinion column in the New York Times in February, Brown University political science professor James Morone wrote, "History, not to mention the Republican rejection of his stimulus package, offers Mr. Obama a clear guide: Pay less attention to the other party and spend more time — much more — persuading America to embrace what you believe."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

This isn't the change Barack Obama promised 12/22/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 23, 2009 12:52am]
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