Promise of bipartisanship
falls to bitterness
Barack Obama bit off more than he could chew when he promised to “turn the page” on partisanship and bring Democrats and Republicans together.
To pull that off, he needed to reverse 30 years of increasing polarization. He didn’t.
There is data that shows the problem got worse during his presidency. A group of academics backed by the National Science Foundation tracked the partisan leanings of each member of Congress. Their work, posted on VoteView.com, measures how each lawmaker voted on bills that involve the role of government in the economy.
By VoteView’s yardstick, since the mid 1970s, conservative positions increased sharply among Republicans. That trend reached its high point during Obama’s time in office and held steady in the past few years. Shifts among Democrats were much less dramatic. The average Democrat became slightly more liberal, but the trend line remained nearly flat.
Sure, partisanship can’t be reduced to a simple graph no matter how savvy the underlying algorithm. But we talked with more than 20 historians and political scientists, and not one of them suggested that bipartisan relations grew cozier between the start of Obama’s administration and the end.
The only debate was whether he could have done better.
Not entirely his fault
About half of our academics said the Republicans refused to compromise with the Obama administration from the start.
Some said they were pushed by the steep rise of conservatism among the average Republican.
I think that Obama attempted to negotiate in good faith with congressional Republicans about budgetary issues, and that the constraints on the House leadership made it almost impossible for the House to negotiate with Obama. In short, there was nothing more Obama could have done to negotiate more effectively.James Russell Muirhead Jr., professor of political science, Dartmouth College
Relations are indeed a two-way street. For a long time — perhaps too long — Obama tried to live up to his campaign pledge of transcending partisan polarization. For example, the development of the Affordable Care Act in Congress dragged on and on because Obama, along with his congressional leadership, was intent on some Republican buy-in from the likes of (Sens.) Susan Collins and Charles Grassley. That the Republicans in the end were unanimous in rejecting the Affordable Care Act was not Obama's fault, but theirs.Bruce Miroff, professor of American politics, State University of New York, Albany
The president attempted and indeed included Republican ideas on tax cuts in the stimulus package as means to get a bipartisan bill. The centerpiece of health reform — the individual mandate — was originally a conservative Republican approach to health reform. “Cap and trade” was also a conservative market-oriented approach to dealing with climate change. Finally, in an effort to reach a “grand bargain” on the budget with the House speaker, the president was apparently willing to consider reforms in Social Security and Medicare that would have antagonized his liberal base. The president went out of his way to pursue his liberal ends through conservative means. But the conservatives in Congress and the media were intent from the outset to obstruct his agenda no matter how conciliatory.Robert C. Smith, professor of political science, San Francisco State University
The common narrative is that he never consulted with Republicans, but of course the reality is that Obama delegated the writing of (the health care) bill to the House and Senate, and in the Senate there were bipartisan negotiations that went on for six months led by the Gang of Six. They deliberately started with Republican ideas, especially those proposed by Sen. Grassley. They tried to find a common ground. And what we know is that after a couple of months Grassley and another member were called by the leadership and told that they better not reach a deal and that they would suffer if they did. And we also know on the stimulus package that on the one major bill that had a bit of Republican support in the Senate, there was no House Republican support even though Obama incorporated a large number of ideas from Republicans, like 40 percent of the stimulus being tax cuts.Norman Ornstein, resident scholar, American Enterprise Institute
It wasn’t inevitable
About a quarter of our political science team thought that as tough as the Republicans made it, Obama missed some chances to find common ground on certain issues.
I do think President Obama could have reached out repeatedly to different sets of Republicans over the past four years on issues such as immigration, infrastructure, and revamping the tax code. Given the GOP's reluctance to even be photographed with the president, that would have taken a lot of resolve, but as president, that is what he was expected to do. The fact that he essentially gave up trying to work with them on most anything was a disappointment in his presidency.Wendy Schiller, professor of political science, Brown University
The missed opportunities were to pass immigration and trade legislation when the going was good, before both issues got politicized fully. Also (there could have been) quicker action on criminal justice where there is consensus now. Also, since U.S. foreign policy has led to divisions in both parties, members of both parties clamoring for more aggressive or less aggressive action, more effort should have been made to get Congress as a whole to vote in support of or in opposition to U.S. action in Syria and Iraq against ISIS. But this would have meant votes from Democrats and Republicans where there was internal division within the parties.Robert Shapiro, professor of government, Columbia University
These were some of the least productive Congresses in history. While the root of this conflict does not fall all at Obama's feet, his administration was not able to find inroads toward successful negotiation with Republicans, whether they were the congressional minority party in Obama's first two years or the congressional majority in subsequent years. In both cases, the Republicans themselves had reasons they did not want to compromise (and internal conflicts that complicated matters further), but I don't think that Obama's efforts on this front can be labelled anything better than fair when we saw the extent of partisan conflict and gridlock that we did.Laurel Harbridge, professor of political science, Northwestern University
He blew it
About a quarter of our experts said Obama himself got off on the wrong foot and relations soured from that point forward.
The point is that President Obama made zero effort, in eight years, to craft any partisan connections. ... The big example is the stimulus bill in 2009. The president was remarkably tin-eared when it came to understanding that this was a chance to establish good relations with Republicans. The stimulus bill turned out to be a narrowly focused package of giveaways to state governments, rather than the sort of bill even Dems like (economist and columnist) Paul Krugman wanted, so there was little economic benefit. And it was clearly designed to punish Republicans, so it had no political benefit. It was shocking that President Obama had so little understanding of the opportunity he had to set a bipartisan tone.Michael Munger, professor of political science, public policy and economics, Duke University
Whether he really intended to be a bridge builder when campaigning or not, he quickly settled on a posture of vilifying and blaming the GOP once in office. Obamacare set the template — he was uninterested in Republican input and content to pass it with no Republican involvement. When the midterms returned divided government, he shifted to unilateral executive action and a politically shrewd but constitutionally absurd argument that he had to do everything alone because Republicans wouldn't do anything (i.e., pass bills to his liking).Brian Gaines, professor of political science, University of Illinois
I think Obama has had a very ineffective strategy with respect to Congress his entire administration. I can appreciate that the White House is not much interested in working with Republicans on Capitol Hill, but he hasn’t even worked with Democrats!Sean Theriault, professor of political science, University of Texas at Austin
So take your pick. You can blame the Republicans, or Obama, or a mixture of both for the rise of partisan politics. As University of Pennsylvania political scientist Matthew Levendusky put it, “When there’s a sense that there’s political ground to be made saying ‘no,’ we shouldn’t expect much compromise.”