Meena Bose is the director of the Peter S. Kalikow Center for the Study of the American Presidency at Hofstra University.
I will continue to seek common ground. . . . My door is always open. But know this: I will not waste time with those who have made the calculation that it's better politics to kill this plan than to improve it. . . . And I will not accept the status quo as a solution. Not this time. Not now.
- President Barack Obama, address to Congress on health care reform, Sept. 9, 2009
Barack Obama campaigned for the White House on a platform of change, in both politics and policy, and his first two years in office have achieved part of that platform. Most notably, he successfully enacted health care reform, which he made clear would be his top priority when he delivered a special address to Congress in September 2009.
But the far-reaching reform that he promised required a partisan strategy of leadership - which was at odds with his promise to change politics as usual in Washington.
The return of divided government, with a Republican-led House of Representatives, means that Obama will have to adapt his governing style to achieve bipartisan cooperation. In the remainder of his term, Obama will need to concentrate more on change in policy-making, particularly as he looks toward the 2012 presidential race. That almost certainly means more incremental policy choices.
Obama came to national attention in 2004 when he delivered the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention, declaring, "There is not a liberal America and a conservative America - there is the United States of America." This implicit critique of partisan politics in national affairs became the hallmark of his presidential campaign. As he famously said in Iowa at the Jefferson-Jackson dinner in November 2007, "We are in a defining moment in our history. . . . And most of all we've lost faith that our leaders can or will do anything about it."
Throughout the campaign, Obama repeatedly asserted that he would bring a new political style to Washington, one that brought elected officials together to enact major changes in financial regulation, health care, foreign policy, education and environmental policy, among other areas.
Upon taking office, Obama continued to call for change in the political process, but to little avail. Only three Republicans in the Senate supported the White House-endorsed stimulus package in 2009, and one of those senators soon switched to the Democratic Party. No Republicans voted for health care reform, and while Obama did receive bipartisan political support for increasing U.S. troops in Afghanistan and drawing down forces in Iraq, many political analysts pointed out that his actions closely mirrored his predecessor's plans.
Similarly, bills to continue tax reductions won bipartisan support after the midterm elections in November in large part because the president accepted much of the Republican Party's agenda on these issues. Change in politics worked when the president shared policy leadership with his political opposition.
With Democratic control of both chambers of Congress, Obama did succeed in fulfilling other campaign promises: financial regulation of Wall Street, a major arms control treaty with Russia and approval to end the "don't ask, don't tell" policy that prohibited gay soldiers from revealing their sexual orientation. Unlike the stimulus package and health care reform, these all passed with Republican votes. Obama, therefore, should be able to continue to make progress on his agenda, even with a split Congress for the next two years. But he will need to keep a few points in mind.
First, 2011 is not 1995. When the Democrats lost control of both chambers of Congress in the 1994 midterm elections, Bill Clinton was widely expected to be a one-term president. Yet just a year later, he prevailed in a budget battle with Congress - which forced two government shutdowns - by successfully persuading the public that Republican-proposed budget cuts were too draconian. He then coasted to re-election in 1996.
Fifteen years later, however, the national debt has almost tripled, and the budget deficit has crossed the $1-trillion mark, making spending cuts a political reality for both parties. A presidential showdown with Congress will only reinforce public disenchantment with government; cooperation is in the political interest of both political institutions and the two political parties.
Second, Obama should listen more. Leading up to November's elections, both political parties cast blame on the other for infrequent communication between the White House and Congress. Obama didn't meet privately with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell until this past August, more than 18 months after his inauguration.
Republicans say Obama failed to follow through on promises to work together; Democrats say Republicans decided early on to oppose the president at every turn, making communication impossible. But from a public perspective, who started it is inconsequential: The person who takes the lead in openness to new ideas will build both private and public political capital for policy-making.
Third, Obama must always act presidential. This isn't to suggest that he has acted otherwise, but simply to reinforce the importance of maintaining public credibility by appearing to remain above the fray.
Dwight D. Eisenhower's strategy of "hidden-hand leadership" may not apply directly in the 21st century, but it remains relevant; not engaging in public political battles may provide leverage in private negotiations.
As Obama looks toward the 2012 campaign (which begins informally this year with the Iowa straw poll in August), he will need to work on both intraparty unity and interparty cooperation. Governing can be useful campaigning for an incumbent president, if he acts strategically - that is, if he achieves real political change in the policy-making process, even if that means more compromises on policy decisions.