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By Jay Cost

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Our Partisan President

In The Audacity of Hope, Barack Obama writes:

[G]enuine bipartisanship...assumes an honest process of give-and-take, and that the quality of the compromise is measured by how well it serves some agreed-upon goal, whether better schools or lower deficits. This in turn assumes that the majority party will be constrained - by an exacting press corps and ultimately an informed electorate - to negotiate in good faith.

This argument, especially the notion of promoting good faith, was central to his star turn at the 2004 DNC, as well his presidential campaign.

Contrast this with the recent comment of press secretary Robert Gibbs, who dismissed the criticisms of former Vice-President Dick Cheney thusly: "I guess Rush Limbaugh was busy, so they trotted out the next most popular member of the Republican cabal."

The term "cabal" was popularized as an acronym for the members of Charles II's Committee for Foreign Affairs, who were said to be running the state. Today, the Oxford English Dictionary defines it as, "a secret or private intrigue of a sinister character formed by a small body of persons; 'something less than conspiracy.'"

So, gone are the days of the vast right wing conspiracy. Presumably, electoral defeat has depleted its ranks - now, it is a mere cabal. Still, it is comforting to know that, though smaller in size, its aims are as sinister as ever.

Later in the presser, Mr. Gibbs conceded that his answer had been sarcastic. We might write this off if it were an isolated incident, but it is not. The White House is openly working to delegitimize Republican challenges to the President's proposals, effectively to argue that the GOP is not a loyal opposition. Recall that the White House endeavored to label Rush Limbaugh the leader of the Republican Party; that this "message war" to paint Republicans as "reflexively political" continues; that one of the first White House officials to mention Limbaugh was the President himself; and that the President has also misrepresented the Republican position on big issues like the stimulus.

So much for promoting good faith. Instead, the White House has fallen into the kinds of partisan habits the President once decried: overwrought rhetoric, misrepresentation of the other side, and ad hominem attack.

I am not the first to point this out. Most recently, the Washington Post ran a front page story on the tension between Obama's governance and his inaugural address, which disavowed, "the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics." When asked to comment on this, the President's Chief of Staff resorted to recriminations: "The truth is that 98 percent of [Obama's] speeches are about the future, and 2 percent are about inheritance, whereas I think for Republicans it's 2 percent about the future, and 98 percent hope that the people have amnesia."

Bipartisanship is easier said than done. Ultimately, partisan rivalry is generated by competing visions of the public good. Sometimes, the competition is more intense than other times. For whatever reason, this is a fiercely partisan era.

Of course, it's been worse. Harry Truman was a good man who today is admired by historians and beloved by the public. But his tenure was marked by heated partisanship, in part for reasons beyond his control. Demobilization after World War II created problems on the home front. The dropping of the Iron Curtain meant trouble overseas and suspicion at home. Republicans - shut out of power for Roosevelt's tenure - were anxious to assert themselves.

But that does not mean we're victims of fate. Truman's rancorous tenure was followed by Dwight Eisenhower's. Ike enjoyed 60%+ approval for his term. Partisan tensions eased. Forty years ago, historians wrote him off as a lightweight who let his advisers make the decisions - but since then they have revised their views, and Eisenhower is now thought to have had a deft hand in managing the government. So, the President can make a difference.

Many thought Barack Obama would at least try. His writing reflects an understanding of "genuine bipartisanship." His campaign implied he wanted to give it a go. Yet his press secretary suggests that his opponents are in a shadowy cabal. This is right out of Hillary Clinton's playbook, the candidate who was offering "more of the same," which we could "no longer afford."

I am worried. Not because I am enamored of bipartisanship. I like Ike - but I like "Give 'em Hell" Harry, too. I have no problem with the sharp elbows approach, even coming from the White House. I am worried because I thought partisan reconciliation was an animating force of Obama's candidacy, a big reason why he thought he - rather than one of the 306 million other Americans - should be President. I am worried that, amidst a credit crisis, two wars, and a lack of confidence in our nation's institutions, we have installed as President a man apparently willing to abandon a foundational premise of his candidacy not three months into his tenure.

-Jay Cost