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By Jay Cost

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Should Obama Be Faulted for the Lack of Bipartisanship?

I have written quite a bit about polarization in the early Obama presidency. Each time I do, I receive a few emails similar to this one:

[Y]ou maintain that Obama's governing style has been highly partisan. That's simplistic: it takes two to tango and the Republicans have valued total opposition over reasonable compromise. I don't care if Obama rolled the Republicans in the public perception game or not: they're playing in the big leagues and they've been there a long time. They should know how to win that game.

This is a version of a general argument - "The Republicans have been doing it, too" - that merits a response.

To start, I agree with the reader that Republicans do it, too. I've written before on this page that politicians' commitment to bipartisanship is usually situational. They support it when they are in the minority because they want to move the policy needle in their direction. They oppose it when they are in the majority because it would push that needle in the other direction. So, yes - Republican politicians are now talking up bipartisanship in a way that is not necessarily consistent with how they governed. That's not a Republican thing, it's a politician thing.

Additionally, I don't think polarization is necessarily a bad thing. Polarization - as I see it - is where you have small differences within each party, but big differences between the parties. One beneficial consequence of such a situation is that the public, which is not really paying careful attention, stands a better chance of perceiving real differences between the two sides. Ultimately, that can make electoral results more meaningful - as a vote for a party can be better identified with a vote for a governing philosophy.

My gripe with the President is not due to the fact that I endorse bipartisanship, my gripe is that he did. I watched his candidacy very closely, from the moment he declared his campaign in Springfield to the moment he declared victory in Chicago. "Change" was his top-line slogan, and the fine print was change from the same-old, same-old partisan hackery of the past.

I think this was the foundational logic of his candidacy. There were five reasonably qualified Democrats running for the nomination: Clinton, Biden, Richardson, Edwards, and Dodd. All of them had at least as much experience as Jimmy Carter, the least experienced Chief Executive in the modern era. Obama had less experience than all of these competitors, and even less than Carter. So why was he running? The answer was that the old rules no longer applied, that experience was now a liability, and that we need a fresh face to change the way politics works.

So, now Obama is in charge, and as the Python boys might say: bipartisanship is not quite dead, but it's not at all well. The reader has a point, "It takes two to tango." Indeed, it does. Even if we assume that all politicians would be well off with bipartisanship, we're still faced with something like the prisoners' dilemma: if one guy is bipartisan and the other is partisan, the bipartisan guy gets screwed. And actually, I'd argue that, given the ideological bases of both parties, the partisan position is the ideal spot for many members of Congress, which is where all the action is on the domestic front.

My criticism of the President is not that he shares most of the blame. Instead, we should spread the blame for partisan polarization around. Obama gets some. So do Bush, Clinton, the other Bush, Reagan, Carter, and all the way back to John Adams. Pelosi and Reid get their fair share. And of course McConnell, Boehner, and congressional Republicans get just as much. Ultimately, everybody gets some of the blame because heated partisanship is in part a consequence of our electoral system, which only few of us wish to change.

Instead, my criticism of the President is that he promised to be above this. He made that the core pledge of his candidacy, the principal reason he should receive the nomination and ultimately the presidency over the dozen or so other contenders across both parties who had better résumés but had been part of the partisan hackery. It was always going to be damned near impossible to move beyond heated partisanship - given all the structural forces that have been at work since the founding, and the ones that have been increasing in the last half century or so. In my opinion, that excuses President Obama for not moving us beyond it - but it does not excuse candidate Obama from promising that he could. Either he knew better and should not have made that promise (and, by extension, should not have run, given the centrality of this promise) - or he didn't know better and was just naïve. Either way, it is appropriate to hold him to account.

We have since learned that the economy was in deep recession on Election Day. It was contracting in dramatic fashion - with the financial meltdown that began in the Fall. Factor that in with President Bush's job dismal job approval numbers, and it was simply too much for the incumbent party to overcome. With that kind of macro environment, a Democrat was all but destined to win the White House. The question was: which Democrat? Obama clearly lacked something we value - relevant experience - but promised he would make up for it by changing the way politics works. If we had known that he would not or could not, wouldn't we have preferred a "same old, same old" Democrat who had more experience in governing? I surely would have.

-Jay Cost