Obama and Post-Partisanship

I’m still trying to absorb all the information and arguments in Ryan Lizza’s massive New Yorker article on the Obama White House, which is based mainly on internal memos. His basic claims that Obama and his people had to deal with very different realities than they prepared for during the campaign; made a significant number of mistakes on the economic front out of a combination of miscalculation and timidity; and wasted a lot of time and credibility trying to reason with congressional Republicans; all seem incontrovertible.

But I do have one initial beef with Lizza’s account. To read it, you would think that Obama’s 2008 campaign was “about” nothing other than “post-partisanship.” I seem to recall him talking an awful lot about policy, and laying out a reasonably specific and generally quite progressive platform (indeed, one reason his competition with HRC was “about” character is that they disagreed on so little in terms of the agenda each would pursue). And with the arguable exception of his promises on civil liberties, Obama in office tried (with, of course, mixed success) to pursue that agenda, despite a dramatically different economic, budgetary and political climate, often with both friends as well as enemies telling him such issues as health reform were disposable distractions. But Lizza seems to share the conservative view that his offer to seek common ground with Republicans negated every other thing he said while running for president.

Certainly Obama’s “post-partisan” talk during the campaign seems exceedingly foolish now, unless you think (as I do) he was trying to talk over the heads of GOP pols to seek support or at least an open mind from moderate Republican voters and GOP-leaning indies–not to mention Democrats who didn’t like excessive partisanship, either. Once in office, though, he did not make the distinction between this “grassroots bipartisanship” and the usual transactional, split-the-difference variety practiced in Washington, and that obviously led him into a trap in which his offers to “reach out” simply made him look feckless and unprincipled.

Lizza’s piece does have a nicely focused analysis of the dynamics of polarization–particularly the “asymmetric polarization” that the radicalization of the GOP has wrought–and how that guaranteed legislative gridlock once Republicans decided they could happily denounce Bush-era policies as “socialist.” But I do think he exaggerates the extent to which Obama took office with a naive faith in the good will of the opposition. He perhaps thought he could exert public pressure on the GOP to behave as minority parties have always behaved in the past after two straight electoral disasters, but it turns out that door was slammed shut before the coffee had cooled in those congenial soirees he held with conservative luminaries.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.