This time, old plea of bipartisanship sounds new

WASHINGTON — On a chilly January day, the new president vowed to unite the country.

"This is my solemn pledge," he said. "I will work to build a single nation of justice and opportunity."

That wasn't Barack Obama. That was George W. Bush in 2001 — and he was by no means the first to use his inaugural address to make a plea for bipartisanship.

Bill Clinton made a similar pledge in 1997 ("Nothing big ever came from being small"), as did President George H. W. Bush in 1989 ("The American people await action. They didn't send us here to bicker.").

So Obama was singing a familiar tune on Tuesday when he declared, "On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics."

He's right about the pettiness.

In Congress, both parties often seem to care more about scoring political points than action. Or, they'd rather ram their bills through with a narrow majority than allow the opposition to have a voice. Never mind the other 49 percent, they seem to say. A win is what matters.

Plus, presidents can find comfort in partisanship. They won't alienate their friends with a risky position, and they can always blame the other side for inaction.

Many Americans are weary of this, which is why vows of bipartisanship have become stock lines in inaugural speeches. But the bickering persists, fueled by the angry tone of talk radio, cable TV, and political blogs.

So why should we believe Obama will be any more successful than Bush and Clinton and Bush?

It feels different this time. Obama has shrewdly used the two-month transition to lay a foundation of trust with Republicans.

He has made symbolic acts — like choosing evangelical minister Rick Warren to deliver the invocation — that upset his liberal base. That was smart politics. The liberals might be grumpy, but he sent a clear signal that he wasn't afraid to be bold.

Obama not only met with his foe John McCain and hosted a dinner to honor him, he has been calling McCain for advice. And Obama kept a promise to appoint at least one Republican to the cabinet, nominating former Rep. Ray LaHood for transportation secretary, and renominated Robert Gates, Bush's popular secretary of defense.

Obama has made it clear to members of Congress that he will listen rather than tell. He even went to a dinner party at George Will's house.

And even before the dinner party, Obama won praise from the right, not just from moderates like David Brooks, but also from conservatives like Michael Gerson, Bush's former speech writer.

At his inauguration on Tuesday, you got the sense that the nation was starting a new chapter — not just because of Obama's race, but because of how he approaches politics.

"He always said 'Yes we can.' It's not just 'I can,' " said John Pearson, a retired assistant police chief from DeKalb County, Ga. "Democrats are not going to be able to do it without the Republicans, and the Republicans are not going to be able to do it without the Democrats."

Andrew Schulman, a software litigation consultant from San Francisco, said Obama's background in rough-and-tumble Chicago politics should help.

"He's very pragmatic," Schulman said. "It's one aspect of being a Chicago pol. He's interested in results."

So, yes, it does feel different.

But we've all heard the talk before.

Partisanship has a powerful gravitational pull. Obama will have to prove he can truly break away from it to be the transformational leader he wants to be.

Bill Adair can be reached at adair@sptimes.com or (202) 463-0575.

This time, old plea of bipartisanship sounds new 01/20/09 [Last modified: Thursday, January 22, 2009 4:14pm]

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