Since the days of our Founding Fathers, Americans have debated the responsibilities public officials have to the voters who elected them. However, in today’s world of omnipresent polling, public opinion and the approval of American citizens have become critical to the success of any politician, especially the president. The 21st Century has seen the president become all the more dependent on public support to help push proposals through Congress and enact his or her agenda. As seen in the last few years of George W. Bush’s presidency, low public approval ratings can contribute to bad press, waning respect on Capitol Hill, and legislative deadlocks. Presidents need to follow the will of those who elected them, or otherwise risk an unsuccessful, unproductive presidency.
For this reason, the assertion that President Barack Obama has been given a mandate to pursue an exclusively Democratic agenda is problematic. While his historic victory, pegged by many as a landslide, may entitle President Obama to act according to the platform that won him election, his candidacy was built on bipartisanship. Therefore, acting without Republican consultation would leave President Obama acting contrary to the image he presented on the campaign trail, and without the full support of those who voted for him based on that image. Indeed, even if one were to argue that President Obama was elected based on his progressive policies, from the beginning of his campaign he stressed that even traditionally Democratic policies would be implemented with input from across the aisle. After his victory in Iowa on January 3, 2008, the then-senator from Illinois used his achievements in healthcare as a state senator to prove his commitment to bipartisanship, stating, “I’ll be a president who finally makes health care affordable and available to every single American the same way I expanded health care in Illinois—by bringing Democrats and Republicans together to get the job done.”
Throughout the course of his presidential campaign, the former senator deepened his resolve to distinguish himself among his competition as a unifier, and resisted being pegged as a typical tax-and-spend liberal, despite acquiring the National Journal’s title of the most liberal senator of 2007. President Obama’s commitment to pursuing bipartisanship on Capitol Hill was best illustrated by the expectations he outlined for his party, his presidency, and all Americans in his November 4th victory speech, when he declared, “Let us resist the temptation to fall back on the same partisanship and pettiness and immaturity that has poisoned our politics for so long... While the Democratic Party has won a great victory tonight, we do so with a measure of humility and determination to heal the divides that have held back our progress.” In other words, the results of the 2008 election were a mandate for the pursuit of the bipartisan politics President Obama emphasized throughout his campaign, rather than a rigid endorsement of the party he happens to represent.
Voter statistics from the 2008 election seem to support President Obama’s own assertions about his victory. Obama drew support from those that may not have agreed with all of his party’s liberal platform, but were convinced by his resolution to reach across the aisle. For example, according to CNN’s exit poll, 52 percent of all independent voters voted for Obama, as well as 60 percent of all voters identifying as moderates and 20 percent of all voters identifying as conservative. Voter registration statistics from swing states such as Pennsylvania also suggest that although 89 percent of registered Democrats voted for Obama, many may have been less than fully committed to the party’s beliefs. In March of 2008, almost 60,000 Pennsylvanian voters switched their registration from Republican to Democrat. While it’s possible that these former Republicans suddenly became enamored by Democratic policies, it’s more probable that they crossed party lines because of the excitement of the Democratic primary and Obama’s message of bipartisan change.
The opinions of Republican Party leaders prior to the 2008 election help explain why many non-Democrats were swayed by Obama’s call for political unity. Chuck Hagel, former Senate Republican from Nebraska, said in a March 2008 interview that he believed Obama was the candidate most likely to bring the United States together. Although Hagel never endorsed Obama, his waning support for the Bush Administration and disenchantment with Republican politics left few speculating why a McCain endorsement failed to materialize. Fed up with their party but not Republican principles, many right-leaning voters and politicians viewed electing a bipartisan Obama as the best way to ensure that Republican ideals were respected and Bush-style politics of divisiveness discontinued.
But even if one were to argue that President Obama’s willingness to work with Republicans played no role in his election, it still stands that almost half of all Americans didn’t even vote for him. While the final electoral collage tally, 365 to 173 votes, made the election look like a huge landslide, John McCain still won 46 percent of the popular vote. While this portion of the population disagreed with Barack Obama enough to vote against him, as president, he represents all Americans. For this reason, Obama is obligated to work with Republicans in an effort to better represent the 58 million Americans who voted Republican.
However, almost immediately after being elected, Obama appeared to start sliding backwards from his lofty promises of reaching across the aisle and changing how Washington works. On November 6, a mere two days after being elected, Obama appointed Rahm Emanuel as his chief of staff, a hard-charging, intensely partisan career politician whose nickname of “Rahmbo” needs no explanation. The appointment of Emanuel, who may be best known for mailing a dead fish to a pollster who displeased him, did not offer much promise for bipartisan cooperation from the Obama White House. Rather, it signaled that Obama intended to use Emanuel’s strong personality to force issues through Congress. Yet, despite this initial appointment, there were positive signs that Obama intended to make good on his promises. Obama’s decision to retain Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense was prudent both politically and practically; it mollified the right wing by putting a Republican in a major Cabinet position, while simultaneously ensuring some continuation in the military chain of command during a time of war. Similarly, the appointment of Marine Corps General James L. Jones was an extremely wise choice. The career military officer had been approached by Condoleeza Rice for the deputy Secretary of State position, twice turning it down, and from November 2007 until the end of the Bush administration, Jones served as a special envoy to the Middle East for security concerns. It was another move that could be whole heartedly endorsed by both sides of the aisle, and with Obama frequently hinting that another Cabinet post would be filled by a Republican, for a period of time it seemed that Obama was serious about his bipartisan aspirations. And then, with his inauguration, came the debate over the stimulus.
From day one, Obama made it clear that creating an economic stimulus package to revive the flailing American economy was his first priority. Even before taking office, Obama was pressuring lawmakers to act quickly, and for a period of time was pushing for a bill to be ready for him to sign the day he was inaugurated. While news of Obama’s plans faced the normal griping from hard-line economic conservatives opposed to any and all government intervention, initially the prospect of a stimulus bill faced wide-spread support from both parties. Aware that the American economy was in dire straits and facing a growing sense among constituents that something needed to be done to stem the tide, senators and congressmen from across the political spectrum were prepared to hammer out a deal. It appeared to be a shining moment for Obama to flash his bipartisan credentials, work with both party leaders, and come out with a bill that nearly everyone could support. Instead, America got the same party-line wrangling that has been plaguing American politics for decades. And in the mess that followed, it became clear that Obama should work with Republicans not only for political and popularity reasons, but for practical ones as well.
Instead of pursuing a bipartisan coalition to author the bill, Obama turned to his Democratic colleagues to singlehandedly craft the stimulus package. The initial version was introduced as legislation in the Senate on January 6, 2009, by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), and co-sponsored by 16 other Democratic senators and Senator Joe Lieberman (I-CT)—clearly not a group that encompasses both sides of the debate. And yet, despite the obvious contradictions between Obama’s campaign rhetoric and his first major action upon being elected, it was not the decision to have the Democrats write the bill that was most incongruous with Obama’s platform of post-partisan politics. Rather, what was troubling was the response from Obama and the Democrats when the Republican Party chose to raise its objections to the bill. On January 23, President Obama met with a group of Republican congressional leaders to hear their concerns about the recently proposed bill, a move ostensibly designed to reach out and work through their differences. However, according to an article on Politico.com, numerous sources reported that Obama flatly told the Republicans, “I won.” Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi echoed Obama’s words when dealing with Republican complains about the House version of the bill, stating at a news conference, “We won the election. We wrote the bill.”
Obama’s attempts to ram the stimulus package through Congress without the consent of Republicans largely went up in flames. While Obama had wanted to sign the bill the day he took office, it took almost a month of wrangling before a deal could be struck to pass it in the Senate. Only the strong bipartisan efforts of moderate Republicans Arlen Specter (R-PA), Olympia Snowe (R-ME), and Susan Collins (R-ME) managed to salvage the package, and the compromise they reached showed what could have been accomplished if Obama had engaged the Republicans from the beginning. Bipartisanship fared even worse in the House—all Republican attempts to introduce amendments to the bill were voted down, and as a result not a single Republican voted to pass it. While this may have shown that in the House Obama doesn’t need Republican support to pursue his agenda, it also leaves him politically vulnerable; if the stimulus package does not work, the Republican Party is set to say, “I told you so.”
In the wake of the fight over the stimulus package, commentators such as the Washington Post’s Richard Cohen have declared Obama’s dreams of changing Washington to be dead, and called for Obama to use the Democrat majority in Congress to pursue his goals without Republican support. The Republicans have been labeled obstructionists and accused of putting partisan politics before the people, and Obama is facing calls to fight fire with fire. This is the wrong lesson to learn. Rather, the example of Specter, Snowe, and Collins should be seen as what can be accomplished when parties sit down in good faith to work out an agreement. This is not only what is politically and practically expedient for President Obama—it is what the American people demanded in November.