Monthly Archives: March 2009

“There Is No There, There”: Obama and the Polarized Congress


Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s recent broadside blasting President Obama for his failure to fulfill his promise to govern in bipartisan fashion is merely the latest such charge leveled by leaders of both parties on this topic. Predictably, Democrats responded that it is Republicans who are being obstructionist by refusing to meet Obama’s bipartisan overtures halfway.

Neither perspective is correct. Instead, as I have argued since before Obama’s inauguration, there was never much probability that we would see a decline in the partisan polarization that has characterized presidential-congressional relations during both the Clinton and Bush administrations, Obama’s best intentions to the contrary notwithstanding.  Change, in this case, means more of the same.  And the reason has almost nothing to do with Republican desires to “wreck” Obama’s presidency any more than the polarization during Bush’s presidency can be blamed on Democratic efforts to thwart his leadership. Nor should we accuse Obama – as many critics have – of  pulling a bait and switch on American voters; although many Republicans view his calls for a more bipartisan relationship as insincere, I think he was (and continues to be) strongly committed to finding a middle ground on which Democrats and Republicans can come together to address the nation’s problems.

The problem, of course, is that there is no such middle ground on most issues, particularly those pertaining to the economy and the budget. Democrats and Republicans are polarized because they do not agree on how best to solve problems related to the economic recession, health care, the energy crisis, or cap and trade emissions policies, to name only a few pressing issues. Faced with this lack of agreement, Obama is essentially powerless to broker a bipartisan compromise on any of these fronts.  If he moves Right to attract Republican votes, Democrats rebuke him.  If he sides with his party, Republicans accuse him of bargaining in poor faith.  Given these two unpalatable options, I have predicted from Day 1 that Obama would, on most polarizing issues, opt for going with his party majority, just as George Bush ultimately opted to govern primarily (albeit not exclusively) through the Republican majority, until he lost that majority in 2006. .

But what of the 2008 election results?  Didn’t they indicate Americans’ desire for change in the form of a more bipartisan governing stance?  Participants at a recent talk I gave on a paper I wrote about the lack of bipartisanship under Obama made essentially this claim in taking my argument to task. Republicans’ obstructionism, they argue, runs contrary to prevailing public opinion. Americans voted for change, and Republicans are out of line for not recognizing this. This line of reasoning fundamentally misreads how our political system works and what the 2008 election results signify. Ours is not a parliamentary system whose members are selected from party “lists”.  Nor is it a “presidential” system in which the president’s election dictates what voters believe Congress will (or should) do.   Rather, we are governed by a congressional system, in which Senators and Representatives represent geographically distinct locales.  And for most Republicans (and not a few Democrats) the most recent elections did not signal a commitment to bipartisanship if that meant abandoning party principles.  Consider the following graph.

It shows the relative influence of “local” versus “national” forces on midterm congressional elections during the period 1954-2006.  Most notably, even in 2006, which most pundits interpreted as a midterm election that was largely a referendum on the Bush presidency, the impact of “local” factors dwarfs “national” factors in explaining House results. (I urge those interested in how these figures are calculated to email me at and I’ll take you through the process. I’m currently working to calculate the 2008 results and will present them when I can).  The same pattern is revealed when looking at presidential election years; local forces typically outweigh national forces in determing the outcomes of House elections.  Note, in particular, the 2004 election.

The point, I hope, is clear: members of Congress respond to different political incentives than does Obama because they represent different constituencies. Even in years when national tides run strong, as in 2004 and 2006, the primary influences on House elections are still local forces.  So while it is true that most voters want Obama to govern in bipartisan fashion, they also want their elected Representative or Senator to stick up for local interests.  And that often means espousing party principles, at the risk of appearing partisan. That’s why Obama failed so miserably at keeping earmarks out of his budget proposal – his interests were trumped by the interests of members of Congress looking to the needs of their own constituents.  Given these incentives, Obama decided to declare victory and move on, rather than upholding his campaign pledge to end the use of earmarks and opposing the bill.  It was a pragmatic decision.

As further evidence of the difficulty Obama faces in developing bipartisan congressional voting coalitions, consider the following data (see here).  Congressional Quarterly has calculated that only 19% (83) of the 435 House districts split their vote by supporting a member of one party for the House and the presidential candidate of the opposing party. Similarly, exit polls indicate that only 19% of individual voters in House elections split their ballot in this manner. The number of House districts with split votes is the second smallest number since 1952, trumped only by the lowest number that occurred four years earlier, in 2004, when only 59 districts (14%) split their vote as Bush won reelection along with a 232-member House Republican majority.  In short, the two most recent presidential elections have returned the smallest number of split districts in the last half century of national elections.  Put another way, there is a dwindling number of districts in which a House representative has any incentive to work with a president of the opposing party.

To quote the well- known political scientist Gertrude Stein, when it comes to the moderate middle in Congress, “There is no there, there.”

In the next several posts I will present more data developing this basic point:  voters may wish for bipartisanship in the abstract, but the signals they send in specific elections often belie that wish.  We may decry the lack of bipartisanship in national politics today. But the cure means reducing, if not eliminating, the ability of members of Congress to represent their constituents’ interests, as indicated in their votes.  In opposing Obama on many domestic issues, Republicans aren’t being obstructionist – they are being effective representatives, just as Democrats believed they were representing their districts when they used the threat of filibusters to bring Senate consideration of Bush’s judicial nominees to a grinding halt when Democrats were in the minority.

This is not to say that bipartisanship will never occur during Obama’s presidency. In fact, we have already seen signs of it, contrary to what the pundits who claim Republicans will never support Obama would have you believe.   I will develop this point in greater detail in another post, but in the areas of prisoner rendition, surveillance techniques, troop levels in Iraq and the strategy in Afghanistan, Obama’s choices have been largely consistent with Bush’s, and have attracted broad Republican support even at the risk of offending the Far Left of the Democratic Party.  The reason, of course, is that voters in Republican-represented districts largely support Obama’s initiatives in these areas.  But it is also the case that Obama has a bit more freedom to maneuver in these areas, because – as yet – they involve actions that do not require a congressional vote.

Can Obama govern in bipartisan fashion?  Yes – but only when Republicans believe their constituents will support Obama’s policies, and Democrats do not oppose such initiatives. For reasons I have described in multiple posts, the incentives for members of Congress in both parties to do so have declined in recent years.

It is easy for pundits to blame the lack of bipartisanship on Republican obstructionism.  But it is also wrong.  Republicans, as Democrats did when Bush was president, are for the most part simply responding to the political incentives set in motion by the Framers more than two centuries ago when they established the system of congressional representation and elections.


Pundicating about Obama’s Second Press Conference

I want to make a couple brief follow up observations to last night’s press conference, piggybacking on some of your comments.   Let me issue a warning, however – what follows is closer to punditry than political science, so take it with the requisite container of sodium chloride.  Let’s call what follows a “pundication” rather than an application of political science.

As Tarsi correctly points out, it’s difficult to engage in an in-depth discussion of policy issues in the televised press conference, and I apologize if my criticisms last night suggested otherwise.  Nonetheless, there is an art to asking questions in a way that forces presidents to address inconsistencies or tensions in their policy agenda and related pronouncements.  I didn’t see very much of this last night – the initial questions were too vague, and the follow up didn’t really press Obama. He was largely allowed to dictate the agenda – no one asked about the most difficult issues on his plate, particularly in foreign policy (why he is essentially adopting Bush’s legal policy on detaining enemy combatants, or what is the strategy in Afghanistan, for instance.)  But even on economic issues, with the conspicuous exception of Chip Reid, no one really pressed him on the assumptions underlying his budget policies, and no one, to my knowledge, asked about the bank bailout bill just announced by Geithner, which is really the issue du jour (although banks were touched on peripherally in some of the questions.)

In thinking about why this might be the case, I came up with one idea which I throw out for your consideration: Obama selected a slightly more diverse and less experienced pool of interviewers than has been the case under previous administrations.

Consider the following: not one of the correspondents asking questions came from a major newspaper – the NY Times, Washington Post, Wall St. Journal, etc. – although the Washington Times did get a question in. And among the major network television correspondents, Chuck Todd is still a work in progress (as indicated by his inexplicable question regarding why Obama didn’t ask Americans to “sacrifice” in a time of economic downturn!)  But while Obama did call on some of the usual suspects (Loven at AP, Tapper at ABC, Reid at NBC, Henry from CNN, Major Garrett at Fox) he also took questions from reporters representing Stars and Stripes, Univision,  Politico (although Mike Allen is experienced), Ebony and the French News Service.   I am not claiming that these journalists are less qualified. But they represent more specialized audiences, and their questions largely reflected the primary interests of those audiences.  There is nothing wrong with this – indeed, one wouldn’t expect otherwise.  But it meant that Obama was less likely to be grilled on the more central issues facing his administration.   At the same time, it increased the likelihood that news stories would lead with his opening statement as the dominant theme to take from press conference, rather than seeing that message get stepped on by an enterprising reporter’s question.

For comparison purposes, I went back to look at who asked questions, and what they asked, during George W. Bush’s second press conference (Bush held his on March 29, 2001 – almost 8 years ago to the day – you can review the transcript here ).  The questioners are not always easily identified in the transcript from that conference, but Bush took questions from the AP, Hearst Papers (the inestimable Helen Thomas), Washington Post (Mike Allen), CNN, ABC (Terry Moran), CBS (John Roberts) and NBC (David Gregory).   There is a huge amount of Washington, DC, experience in these people.  Now, to be fair, I really need to do a more detailed comparison of the backgrounds of these reporters – what I’m arguing here is more impressionistic than I’d like. But I throw it out for you consideration….

Bush’s press conference differed in other ways as well. It took place in the morning rather than in prime time and, as you might expect, he dealt primarily (although not entirely) with a different set of topics than what was discussed last night.  His opening statement was brief, and focused on recent violence in the Mideast (some topics never change!)  Three of the subsequent questions dealt with the economy, which was showing clear signs of slowing, and whether Bush’s proposed tax cuts were too small to stimulate the economy, or too big and thus likely to produce budget deficits (this was at a time when the government was running a budget surplus, believe it or not!).  In addition to the economy, the reporters also asked about the following topics: how to handle the recent escalation of violence in the Middle East – would he meet with PLO leader Arafat? (Bush reiterated his belief that the U.S. could not force a peace settlement in the Mideast, and that peace would take both sides coming to the table – eventually the U.S. pursued a policy of marginalizing Arafat); whether he would sign campaign finance reform bill outlawing soft money contributions (he was noncommittal, but he eventually did); whether he supported drilling in the ANWR (he did, but never got it passed Congress);  his decision to rescind the Clinton administration’s ruling lowering acceptable arsenic levels in water (he said he wanted to make the decision based on science, not politics);  whether he got along with John McCain (he respected him, even if they disagreed on some issues); whether we needed a missile defense (Bush said yes, given the very real threat of a terrorist attack on the nation); how he would change international opinion which seemed very much against the U.S. (note that this was BEFORE 9/11 and the Iraq war!); and whether he supported a free trade agreement in the western hemisphere (he looked forward to speaking with South American leaders about this issue.)

Generally, the questions were a bit more pointed and the follow ups more direct than what we heard last night. On the other hand, the tone of Bush’s press conference was much more relaxed, with Bush and the reporters engaging in gentle banter (Bush and David Gregory in particular going at it).  That sure changed, didn’t it? And Bush called only on major, mainstream print and television journalists – there were no internet correspondents.

I should add that I think there are sound reasons why Obama might prefer a more diverse set of questioners, and why we, as a viewing audience, also benefit from hearing a slightly different set of issues addressed.  But I also wonder if it affected the substance, and even the quality, of the questions he received… thoughts?

By the way, Jack Goodman (via Chuck Todd) provides an explanation for the clear discomfort I noted last night with Obama as he read his opening statement from the teleprompter – see Jack’s comments from the previous post.

Live Blogging Obama’s Second Press Conference

8 pm – We are using the NBC feed. Obama leads with the opening statement, trying to get his message across before the questions lead him in a direction he doesn’t want to go…  note that he’s talking over the media’s head here – he’s talking directly into the camera.  This is one reason journalists didn’t like live press conferences – they get relegated to the backdrop.

8:03 – He’s still claiming that he will halve the deficit in his first term.  Mark that one down for the records.

8:04 – pushing the budget.  Remember, this

8:05 – here’s the populist attack on the bonus babies…

8:06  He’s not at his best with the teleprompter.  This is a skill that is acquired through practice, but right now he talks too fast, and comes across as reading, rather than speaking.  Reagan was the best I ever saw at this.

8:07 AP correspondent goes first.  Let’s see if Obama agrees that he’s advocating “taking over” banks.

Interesting response – she’s asks about banks, he responds by using AIG (not a bank!) as his example. Why – because we all hate AIG!   Notice he doesn’t use the word “nationalize” or even “takeover” .

8:10 – Chuck Todd. NBC.  Asking the public to sacrifice?  What exactly is Chuck asking here? Isn’t unemployment a sacrifice?  A recession isn’t sacrifice?  Losing a job is sacrifice! What a ridiculous question!  I have no idea what Todd was trying to ask here….Obama is bailing him out by responding as if the question made sense.

Todd persists in making  a fool of himself with his followup…..give it up man!

8:15 Good question here (finally) on the budget deliberations – let’s see how Obama responds.  My guess is he doesn’t lay down a veto threat.  Not this early.

Nice answer: stick to general principles, don’t get bogged down in details.  In essence, Obama says he’s open to pretty much anything Congress delivers.  This is a good negotiating strategy for working with Congress – lay down principles, don’t get fixated on details. He’s for education, energy, and reducing the deficit.  Btw, he also like Mom and Apple Pie too, and Congress better not be against that.

8:20 Chip Reid presses him on budget deficits. Isn’t the Obama budget irresponsible?  Obama’s right about the impact of different assumptions on the out years of budget growth.  Not surprisingly, presidents of both parties always adopt the rosier assumptions regarding growth.

[ Max – are the reporters nervous, or clueless?]

Chip is not convinced.   Obama says some saving will come in entitlement reform – but what specific reform?  He promises it will be “bipartisan”  – is that possible in this Congress?  I think not… .  Obama claims to be lowering non-defense discretionary spending to the lowest, as a % of GDP, since the 1960’s.  This is essentially meaningless, since it’s based on rosy assumptions regarding GDP growth, and doesn’t include entitlements (nondiscretionary) programs which are the big budget busters.

8;28 – This is one of those questions designed to allow Obama to publicize how he’s responding to an immediate policy issue – in this case drug-related border violence.

8:30 – Stars and Stripes?  Another opportunity for Obama to publicize a program he wants highlighted.  Every presidents since Reagan has promised to reform procurement of military weapons.  This was a pet issue of Don Rumsfeld, and he couldn’t deliver, largely because Congress does not want real procurement reform if it means eliminating major weapons systems.

[Fred – are you suggesting that he might just lie to us?]

8:37 – Another AIG-related question suggesting Obama’s outrage was calculated and again questioning about the growth in the deficit under Obama.  And again, Obama points to the fact that he inherited a huge deficit.  Nice parry here by Obama to link deficit reduction to health care reform.  But not much here on the details of health care reform beyond the non-controversial support for better recordkeeping, better accounting, etc., to reduce costs. But this skirts the critical issue of real health care reform (as he well knows). ..

Did he just say the savings he anticipates producing will take place outside the 10-year budget projection?

Ooops – a slapdown!  I’ll show you real anger!  (btw, I hope you saw the SNL skit with “The Rock” playing Obama’s alterego, “The Rock Obama”.  You don’t want to get him angry…

8:37 – Fox news.   A world currency?  What kind of question is this?

When Obama says he hasn’t look at the latest polling around the world, he means, “go look at the latest polling”

8:40 – Ok, he’s called on an internet “journalist” – Allen is from Politico.   I’m not sure Obama’s answer here gets to the issue. He’s turning it into a tax higher incomes, but the question asks about the impact on charitable giving….Ok, now he gets it. Good finish.

8:45 Well, this is a horrible question.  What’s Obama going to say except to tout his economic recovery plan?  C’mon people, let’s not waste this opportunity.  This is likely to be the last press conference for several months… It does give Obama a chance to gets back to what he’s doing for veterans.

8:47:  Anne Compton.  Race?  What kind of a question is this?   Geez Louise – why don’t you tee it up for him?  Can you spell SOFTBALL!   This has to be the worst set of questions I’ve seen in a long while…

8:49 – WAshington Times on stem cells.  Do you think Obama wrestled with this issue?  What?  He did?  I’m shocked…SHOCKED!

OK, I’m putting out an APB for Sam Donaldson.  Where’s Dan Rather?  This is the most docile group of correspondents I have ever seen…  Were they cowed when Obama shut the first reporter up who pushed him on why he was slow to respond to the AIG bonus issue?

[Jeff[- Yep. They are writing the parody even as we watch! Can’t wait for Saturday night!]

Last question…. 8:58.  Finally a foreign policy question.   But not a particularly hard one.

George MItchell?  He just dissed HIllary – she’s in charge!  Why did she ever take this job?  “Thank you Mr. President, may I have another?”  Mitchell’s not your SEcretary of State – Hillary is!!

He believes in persistence.  Quick! Cue “High Hopes” – he’s finishing with the obligatory high note.  You can knock me down, but I get right up again…

I dont’ think he wants to tout his video to Iran….

STop the presses: he’s not immediately going to bring peace to the Mideast!


OK – we’ll stick with NBC for the postmortem by the talking heads, but feel to jump in if you have some reactions (and I realize all you students are on break….)

OK, Chuck Todd’s take: Obama’s theme is incremental progress.  Ooops!  It’s primetime – the networks are done with this.  You’ll have to move to the cable.

Some final thoughts – press conferences are so highly staged now that they rarely serve the purpose for which they ostensibly were created – to hold the presidential accountable for decisions made (and not made) and to allow the president to communicate with the public.   I’m not sure how well tonight’s event accomplished either of these goals.  My guess is that from Obama’s perspective, he was willing to trade off facing some softball questions for the chance to present an opening statement (and closing one too) that explained his economic plans to date.  Otherwise  I don’t think much was accomplished here, except perhaps reiterating just how peripheral Hillary Clinton is to Obama’s foreign policy, and to remind us how docile the White House press corps can be.   Since I don’t have cable here, I’m not sure how (if at all) they are parsing this exchange, but I don’t see alot of news coming out of it, unless I missed something.  This is just a  reminder how sterile press conferences have become… .

I’ll be on tomorrow with reaction to the overnight pundit reviews.

The Dwindling Press Conference

Barack Obama will hold his second major press conference tonight. It is scheduled for 8 p.m. and should be televised live. (I will try to live blog – please join in with your comments if you’d like – it’s always more fun that way!) As indicated by the chart below (note that this only compares presidents that succeeded a president of the opposing party), through the first two months of his presidency, Obama has held fewer major news conferences than any of his modern predecessors in this cohort (he’s currently tied with Bush II at one).  In an earlier post (see here) I showed data documenting the decline in all presidential press conferences beginning in the 1960’s and offered an explanation for why presidents find these exercises increasingly less useful.  It is no surprise, then, that Obama has shown no inclination to reverse this trend.


Instead, like his predecessors dating back to Richard Nixon, Obama has sought to bypass the mainstream media by taking his message directly to the people. One way he has done so is by continuing a tradition started by Reagan in which presidents give a short weekly address directly to the public.  But whereas Reagan’s address was on radio only, Obama – taking advantage of changing technology – gives his address via a multimedia format that includes video.  (If you haven’t seen this, here‘s the link to the first one he gave while still president elect – see here.  You can go to the White House website to see archived versions of all his weekly addresses – see: ).   The idea behind this strategy is to get Obama’s message across, unfiltered by media interpretation.  What’s interesting is to see how Obama utilizes the latest technology to do so.  Of course, he’s not the first president to try to harness new communication technology to mobilize public support for his policy initiatives. Although our own Calvin Coolidge gave the first presidential radio address, it was FDR, through his celebrated “fireside chats”, who really brought radio to the fore as a means of communicating directly with the people. Similarly, JFK was the first president to capitalize on the growth of television by instituting live televised press conferences.  Nonetheless, both FDR and JFK continued to meet in direct give-and-take with journalists by holding relatively frequent press conferences.  Obama, in contrast, took the third longest of all the post-FDR presidents to hold his first press conference (again only comparing presidents that came to power following a predecessor of the opposite party – only Eisenhower and George W. Bush took longer).   At the same time, however, with his appearance on the Leno show, Obama becomes the first president to appear on a nightly entertainment talk show.

It is perfectly understandable why presidents are increasingly reluctant to undergo a public interrogation by news journalists who often seem more interested in playing “gotcha” politics and getting face time than in engaging in a reasoned dialogue with the president.  The culprit is not modern journalists so much as the modern televised press conference.  As I’ve said before, it simply does not serve a very useful purpose because it does not allow for the nuanced in depth give-and-take that characterized the older “closed” press conference used by FDR and the print journalists.  Far better to swap jokes with Jay Leno than endure a five-part question, with followup, from David Gregory.  Unless, of course, your joke offends an entire group of people! (And I don’t mean bowlers…)

Technology marches on, and presidents are forever trying to use it to their advantage. This is understandable. But it is not clear that we, the people, are always the better for it.

With that in mind, here are some things to look for in tonight’s conference.  Who – after he recognizes the obligatory major networks – does Obama call on for questions?  In his first press conference he made a bit of history by calling on a representative of the “netroots” (a “journalist” from the HuffingtonPost).  Look for him to reprise that strategy today – these people are so grateful to be recognized that they usually send up softball questions.  Second, see if he’s learned to shorten his answers – he had a tendency during the first conference to respond with rather detailed, lengthy answers that did not always play well in that particular medium. Third, look for the “planted” questions – presidents will frequently strike deals with “second tier” media representatives in which they agree to call on them in exchange for feeding a question topic.  Fourth, see whether the mainstream media can catch Obama unaware by asking a question for which he has not prepared.  It’s always a cat-and-mouse game in this regard, with presidents spending the day wargaming likely questions and journalists trying to develop just the right wording so that the president cannot wiggle out with a non- or evasive answer.

The bulk of the conference should deal with Treasury Secretary Geithner, the bank rescue plan, the economy, the 2009-10 budget negotiations with Congress, the use of reconciliation procedures and probably a foreign policy question re: Iraq’s seeming rebuff of Obama’s overture to that country and/or something about Afghanistan.

For humor, I expect at least one question dealing with Obama’s NCAA picks…See you at 8 …..


The Education of a President: Reconciliation and Partisan Polarization

The media is reporting (see here and here)  that the Obama administration is considering bringing up several important pieces of legislation, including bills on health care reform and climate change, under special procedures designed to prevent Senate Republicans from using the filibuster to prevent passage of these bills. If Obama follows through on these reports, it will be an overt acknowledgment that he has given up on his pledge to restore bipartisanship to presidential-congressional relations.  To see why this proposal signals the end of any pretense of pursuing bipartisanship, one needs first to understand what he is proposing to do.

The special procedure he is contemplating using (or more precisely his Democratic allies in Congress are considering) is called “reconciliation”, and it was formally created as part of a package of reforms to the budgeting process adopted by Congress in 1974. The reforms created two new Budget committees (one in the House and one in the Senate), and a new step in the budget process designed to establish more top-down control over projected expenditures and revenues. The idea was to allow Congress to more clearly establish its budget priorities, and then bring spending and taxing in line with these goals. The new step involves the two new Budget Committees setting overall targets for how much money Congress intends to spend in a variety of areas (defense, health and human services, agriculture, etc.) and another set of targets on how Congress will raise money to pay for these programs.  These targets are incorporated into a budget resolution that must pass Congress before it can begin actual deliberations regarding individual spending and tax bills. That first budget resolution also contains instructions to the various tax and authorizing/appropriating subcommittees in Congress directing them to “reconcile” their specific appropriation and tax bills with these overall targets passed by Congress. (This description simplifies the original budget process a bit – there were actually supposed to be two budget reconciliation steps, but the second one is rarely used.)

Now, there are two crucial things to know about the reconciliation process. First, it is a budget-oriented procedure. By that I mean it is not designed to be used when debating non-budgetary legislation. So, why is Obama reportedly considering utilizing this legislative procedure in an unorthodox manner, to push through legislation, such as health care reform or climate policy, that is not, strictly speaking, part of the budgeting process?  Because under congressional rules reconciliation bills cannot be filibustered. That is, rather than the supramajority requirement of 60 votes needed to pass most bills in the Senate (60 votes are required to end a filibuster), under budget reconciliation procedures, legislation only requires a simple majority – 51 votes – to pass the Senate. Put another way, any bill taken up by the Democrats under reconciliation can be passed in the Senate without a single Republican vote, since Democrats control 58 Senate seats. (In the House, the Democrats already control a working majority, which is why they easily passed an economic stimulus bill without a single Republican vote in support.)

The decision – if Obama agrees to it – to use reconciliation to pass non-budgetary items will be highly controversial for at least two reasons.  To begin, under reconciliation procedures, there are strict limits on debate.  Critics – including some Democrats in Congress – argue that significant legislation such as health care reform or cap-and-trade emissions legislation needs to be thoroughly debated in Congress, and thus ought not to be brought up under more restrictive conditions.  More generally, they argue that using reconciliation for a non-budgetary purpose is a clear violation of Senate norms, and that it is not suitable for debating complex legislation.  Second, the use of reconciliation is a blatant signal that Obama is willing to ignore Republicans when drafting significant legislation.  Given these factors, why would Obama consider using the procedure?  In large part because he is under pressure from the Left Wing of his own party to do so. Democrats in the House were none too happy with the concessions Obama made to moderate Democrats and Republicans in the Senate in order to enact his economic stimulus package, and they do not want to see this repeated in debate over signature elements of the Democratic legislative agenda.

For Republicans, of course, Obama’s threat to use reconciliation to pass his major bills is simply more evidence that Obama’s repeated campaign pledges to put an “end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics” was so much empty rhetoric.  Democrats, in response, argue that Obama has repeatedly reached a hand across the partisan divide, only to see the gesture rebuffed by Republicans, most recently during the debate over the economic stimulus bill.

Both perspectives, I argue, overlook the fundamental reason why we are unlikely to see any end to the polarization experienced during the Bush presidency, Obama’s well-meaning pledges to the contrary notwithstanding.  Partisan polarization had almost nothing to do with Bush, and everything to do with the composition of Congress.  Consider the following chart, which uses Democrats’ and Republicans’ voting records in the 110th (2007-09) Congress to place them along a single ideological dimension. (The data was gathered by Middlebury undergrad Avery White, based on DW-Nominate scores that I have discussed previously in this blog).  Note the complete lack of any overlap in the two parties, signified by the empty space in the middle of the ideological spectrum.

What does this mean if you are Obama?  Simply put, there is no preexisting foundation on which to build a bipartisan coalition. If anything, the current Congress is even more polarized than the previous one, as we saw in debate regarding the economic stimulus bill.   This does not mean that Obama cannot attract Republican votes – he can. But to do so he will need to adopt Republican policies – at a likely cost of a drop in support from the left wing of the Democratic Party.  When given the chance to meet the Republicans halfway during the debate over the stimulus bill, Obama chose not to – and for good reason. Had he moved any more toward the Republican direction, he faced a revolt from the Pelosi Democrats in the House.

This is why I have argued from the start of Obama’s presidency that his claim to be a “post-partisan” president was likely to fall on deaf ears. In fact, I expected his presidency to be the mirror image of Bush’s, in which most of his major legislative initiatives will pass with little or no Republican support.   This is particularly true for issues that highlight the major ideological divide between Democrats and Republicans – the extent to which the government is responsible for maintaining economic security.  To the degree that his initiatives on health care, or Medicare reform, or energy, map onto this ideological divide, it will be very difficult for Obama to develop a bipartisan coalition.

Let’s be clear here: I think Obama was sincere in his belief that once elected, he could change the culture of polarization that has dominated congressional debate for the last decade or more.  But it is easier to promise change than to enact it.  He has discovered what Bush, and Clinton before him, also discovered: that there is an inherent tension between passing bills in bipartisan fashion and passing bills that appeal to your party’s core beliefs. And this is why he is now considering bringing some major bills up under reconciliation – an inherently polarizing process.  Note: this is NOT the case of Obama reaching out to the Republicans first only to see his efforts rebuffed.  This is the President saying to Republicans that “I don’t need your input in the legislative process.”  It is the antithesis of bipartisanship.  It is a purely partisan strategy that will only exacerbate partisan tension. And yet, evidently, Obama sees this as the price that one must pay to legislate under current conditions – exactly the calculation that Bush made before him.

Now, it may be that he will continue to reach out, rhetorically, to the Republicans. As Obama said after the stimulus bill debate, “All those (efforts) were not designed simply to get some short-term votes. They were designed to try to build up some trust over time. And I think that as I continue to make these overtures, over time hopefully that will be reciprocated.” Some of you, like Bob Johnson, applaud Obama for making these rhetorical overtures in part because you believe, as Obama predicts, that over time such overtures may dampen some of the overt partisanship characterizing presidential-congressional relations to date.  But the worry is that if the results continually belie the rhetoric, Obama’s credibility as leader may suffer.

It is easy to forget that Bush too took office promising to be a “uniter, not a divider.”  As he said in his 2001 inaugural address: “Civility is not a tactic or a sentiment. It is the determined choice of trust over cynicism, of community over chaos. And this commitment, if we keep it, is a way to shared accomplishment.”  And yet he left office eight years later viewed as a strongly polarizing figure.

The lesson, I hope, is clear, and it should be a reminder why I continually harp on a recurring theme: presidents must play the political cards they are dealt, and that hand is never as strong as they (or their supporters) envision it to be while on the campaign trail.  For Obama, as for Bush, that hand is a highly polarized Congress that precludes the possibility of governing in bipartisan fashion on most issues.  Readers of this blog will not be surprised to know that already Obama’s approval ratings have dropped almost 10% from his initial post-inaugural Gallup poll high of 68% (I’ll devote a separate post to a discussion of approval ratings more generally.)  As I noted in an earlier blog, this decline was almost inevitable, and thus easily predicted, given that he won election with only 53% of the popular vote.  Significantly, most of that drop is due to erosion of support among Republicans in the electorate.

A post-partisan president? Hardly. Nor should we have expected otherwise.