Oct. 14

Obama’s vision of unity led only to a wider gap

President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner attempted to forge a comprehensive budget deal in 2011, a process that ended bitterly.
Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images/File
President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner attempted to forge a comprehensive budget deal in 2011, a process that ended bitterly.

WASHINGTON — In January 2010, just one year into his presidency, President Obama traveled from the White House to Capitol Hill to deliver his first State of the Union address. Health care was being debated, Republican Scott Brown had just been elected senator from Massachusetts, and the economy remained sluggish.

With his presidency already at a crossroads, Obama returned to a theme that had guided his political career: He admonished both parties for their divisiveness, urged them to work together, and said he hadn’t given up on trying to change the corrosive tone of the country’s politics.

In fact, he said, he wanted to begin meeting monthly with Republican and Democratic leaders to “show the American people that we can do it together.”


“I know you can’t wait,” he added, as members of Congress laughed.

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But wait they did.

His first one-on-one meeting with the top Republican in the House, John Boehner, did not come for another year and a half. In nearly five years in office, Obama has met individually with Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell two times, according to a review of White House visitor logs, pool reports, and press releases. Obama did initially hold regular meetings with other members of the congressional leadership; after several months those sessions became sporadic.

Obama’s talk of uniting the nation often has not translated into, to use military parlance, “boots on the ground.” He has visited Democrat-leaning “blue” states six times more often than he has visited Republican “red” states. He has staffed much of his administration with people who grew up in blue states. None of his major legislative accomplishments — the stimulus, health care, and financial reforms — received more than six Republican votes.

In sum, one of the biggest failures of Obama’s presidency is that, five years after he took office vowing to close the partisan divide, the capital he now oversees and the country he represents are far more divided than they were before he came.


Washington is as poisonous — and, to use Obama’s words, petty and immature — as ever. Obama has not turned the United States into 50 purple states, where compromise is desired and citizens agree there are two sides to each coin. It is indisputable, longtime observers says, that the red states are redder, and the blue states are bluer.

Pete Souza/The White House
President Obama has met privately with Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell only twice, including in the Oval Office on Aug. 4, 2010.

Obama may not be principally to blame for this baleful trend. But he is also not a bystander. In the story of why Washington is more broken than Obama found it, analysts said that while Republicans bear considerable responsibility, so, in his own way, does the president. His leadership style has inspired millions of supporters but also has angered countless conservatives, who have coalesced into a fiercely uncompromising opposition. It is all a long way from the vision presented by Obama when he entered the national spotlight.

• • •

It was on the second night of the Democratic National Convention in Boston in 2004 when the little-known state senator from Illinois captivated the nation in a 17-minute keynote address. Obama sounded a pitch-perfect note for a country that had grown increasingly discordant. The text of the speech he gave at the Democratic National Convention was so stirring in its call for unity that the nominee that year, John Kerry, reportedly wanted him to tone it down a little.

“The pundits like to slice and dice our country into red states and blue states,” a fresh-faced Obama said at the time. “But I’ve got news for them . . . We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.”


The next month, Newsweek put him grinning on its cover, with the headline, “Seeing Purple.”

‘Historians will long debate what would have happened if the president had chosen to proceed somewhat more slowly and cautiously.’

It solidified an impression he had carefully constructed. His cultural and multiracial background seemed to enable him to find comfort in many different settings. He was the first black president of the Harvard Law Review. He wrote an autobiography, “The Audacity of Hope,” about a brand of politics he thinks should bring people together.

As he ran for president, Obama continued to preach the merits of purple politics.

“Let us resist the temptation to fall back on the same partisanship and pettiness and immaturity that has poisoned our politics for too long,” he said to the throngs in Chicago’s Grant Park the night of his 2008 election. The country — both red states and blue states — seemed to buy it. That night, he had flipped Virginia and North Carolina to the Democratic column. He had won New Mexico and Colorado in the West, and took Indiana and Iowa in the Midwest.

But when he was elected, it brought out an animosity unlike anything he had seen before. Until his run for president, he had largely been spared Republican invective. During his US Senate race in 2004, not a single negative TV ad ran against him.

During his presidential campaign, Obama’s rosy rhetoric about healing the persistent partisan and racial divides sounded nice on television and in speeches. But now he was confronting an opposition ready to challenge his every move.

• • •

After Obama was inaugurated in 2009, former House speaker Newt Gingrich was walking away from the festivities, both impressed with the new president and worried about the Republican Party’s future.

“If he actually governs based on these speeches,” he recalled telling his wife, Callista, “he’ll be like Eisenhower and split the Republicans.”

So that night, as Obama celebrated at inaugural balls across Washington, amid declarations that a transformational, post-political presidency was about to unfold, Gingrich and a group of Republicans gathered to plot their counterattack.

Meeting in The Caucus Room, a high-end restaurant a block away from where Obama’s inauguration parade had passed hours earlier, the Republican luminaries decided during their four-hour meal that they would attempt to execute a strategy that Gingrich compared to “running an option play in football.”

“We said that night, he’s going to go one of two ways. If he goes to the center we’ve got to find a way to negotiate and see who co-opts who,” Gingrich said. “If he goes left, we should oppose him on a draconian basis.”

Within days, it became clear which path each side would take.

A week after his inauguration, Obama was planning to head up to Capitol Hill, where Democrats held both the House and the Senate, to meet with House Republicans about his first major bill: the federal stimulus, which would inject $787 billion into the economy in an effort to soften the recession.

Just before Obama’s motorcade left, he was handed a report: Boehner would oppose the stimulus plan that Obama was about to discuss with them.

“If ever there was a cold shower, that was it,” said David Axelrod, a former senior White House adviser. “They slammed the door before he even walked in the room.”

Ultimately, the legislation got no Republican support in the House and only three Republican votes in the Senate — one of which was from Arlen Specter, who became a Democrat two months later.

Then, after trying to negotiate with a group of bipartisan lawmakers on health care legislation, Obama pushed forward on a straight party-line vote.

It was a decision that shapes his presidency to this day. By winning passage by the narrowest margin, he helped spur the creation of the Tea Party and a “de-fund Obamacare” movement that has led to a government shutdown and possibly a showdown over whether to raise the debt ceiling.

Just after that was Dodd-Frank, which expanded financial regulations in response to the 2008 economic collapse. It garnered Republican votes from three members each in the House and Senate.

Obama would frequently utter a phrase about Republican posturing to his advisers in the Oval Office, telling them that “It’s not on the level.” He felt as if he was being dragged into dishonest political debates where Republicans were opposed to his ideas not because they disagreed with them but because he was the one proposing them, according to his former advisers.

“There was just complete opposition. And it didn’t seem to be based on the policy merits,” said David Plouffe, one of Obama’s longtime senior advisers who left the White House in January. “The decision could have been made, ‘I’m going to keep banging my head against the wall because I want to do this stuff with Republicans.’ But if he did that, he wouldn’t have gotten anything done.”

Several outside observers say that while the Republicans were bound to oppose Obama, the White House failed to outline the case for his policies to the country, as a way to broaden support.

Indeed, during his reelection campaign last year, Obama conceded that one of his failures was not communicating enough with the public about what he was attempting to do. He struggled to effectively explain why the stimulus was needed — or to make sure that those who voted against it paid a political price.

Polls have shown that many Americans still don’t understand Obama’s health care law or the financial regulations he signed into law. Republicans have pilloried both.

“At most turns he avoided being publicly confrontational out of a hope that could work to his advantage,” said Norman Ornstein, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington-based nonpartisan think tank, and co-author of the book “It’s Even Worse than it Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism.”

“If he had called them on some of this stuff and been tougher on it, he would have been accused of contributing to the polarized atmosphere,” Ornstein added. “But it might have created a climate where he would have gotten more bipartisan support.”

Instead, Obama and Republicans dug in.

“The president pursued a very aggressive legislative agenda during his first two years, which stiffened the spines of the opposition — and created the basis for a public backlash, which the administration’s been living with ever since,” said William Galston, a former adviser to President Clinton and now a fellow at the Brookings Institution. “Historians will long debate what would have happened if the president had chosen to proceed somewhat more slowly and cautiously. Would the partisanship have been as sharp and divisive?”

After Obama said he wanted to have bipartisan monthly meetings, several were scheduled. He held a forum with several dozen members of Congress to debate health care. He went to Capitol Hill to meet with Senate Republicans. And he hosted some of the top leaders in the House and Senate at the Cabinet Room in the White House to discuss the economy.

But by July, not long after financial reform legislation passed with little Republican support, those meetings stopped being regular.

“All I want for Christmas is a smart, loyal opposition,” Obama said in the summer of 2010, according to Jonathan Alter’s book “The Center Holds: Obama and his Enemies.” “We’d make music together.”

• • •

If Obama wanted to make music, he always seemed to be the conductor telling everyone else how to play — rather than joining in the ensemble himself.

Obama is the rare politician who has little apparent interest in engaging with fellow politicians. He vacations, governs, and campaigns with a trusted group of close friends and advisers. And that group, for the most part, does not include other politicians.

Obama has golfed nearly 150 times as president, for example, yet only four of those trips are known to have included members of Congress (and only two of them included Republicans).

“One of the tools of the presidency would be to invite anybody you want to play golf. He uses it as a total relaxation device” instead of employing it to woo the political opposition, said Trey Grayson, a Republican who is director of the Harvard University Institute of Politics. “He didn’t have the personal relationships because he was so new to Washington. And he hasn’t developed them as president.”

It wasn’t always so. As a state senator in Illinois, Obama had beers and played poker with Republican colleagues in Springfield, concluding with them privately that they agreed on more than they could publicly admit. When he ran for president, a prominent Republican state senator from Illinois agreed to appear in a television ad talking about how successful Obama was at bipartisanship. As a freshman US senator, he befriended some Republicans, including Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican.

But as soon as he became president, much of that outreach seemed to stop.

The initial failure to connect with Boehner is Exhibit No. 1. The president did not meet one-on-one with the Republican House leader during his first two years in office. It was only after Republicans took control of the House in the 2010 midterm elections, which propelled Boehner to the speakership, that Obama began to court him in earnest. Even then, it was limited.

Their first private meeting was in June 2011, as they began to negotiate a so-called Grand Bargain that would cut the growth of the budget and entitlement programs while raising taxes on high-income earners.

Obama also invited Boehner to golf with him at Andrews Air Force Base. Boehner accepted the invitation, and the pair hit the links and sat in the clubhouse afterward. A few days later, they sat on the patio outside the Oval Office in shirt sleeves. They chatted on the phone. Briefly, it seemed to be a turning point, with Obama’s vision of bipartisanship in reach.

But a dispute over a mix of tax increases and entitlement cuts caused the deal to fall apart. Both sides felt burned, with competing narratives over who was to blame.

Obama and Boehner held back-to-back press conferences, during which the two accused each other of being unwilling to cut a broad deal. Obama said Boehner wouldn’t return his calls, adding, “I’ve been left at the altar now a couple of times.” Boehner said Obama was impossible to negotiate with, saying “the White House moved the goal posts.”

“It took the embarrassment and debacle of the failed grand bargain leading up to the debt limit farce to make him realize that he wasn’t going to be able to make this work,” Ornstein said. “That he couldn’t cut a deal with a responsible leader where they both could compromise. It took him through 2011 to at least understand that.”

Boehner has turned down some of the White House invitations, often citing scheduling conflicts. He has declined invitations to all six state dinners Obama has hosted, as well as an offer to fly aboard Air Force One for a memorial service in Tucson, Ariz., after a mass shooting that targeted Gabrielle Giffords, then a congresswoman. Last year, he and other Republicans declined an invitation to come to the White House to screen the movie “Lincoln.”

“I like Speaker Boehner personally, and when we went out and played golf we had a great time,” Obama said in a press conference earlier this year. “But that didn’t get a deal done in 2011.”

Obama’s relationship with the Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell is worse. In December 2010, during a White House ceremony where he thanked Republicans and Democrats for helping pass a childhood nutrition bill, Obama referred to McConnell as “Mike.” McConnell, for his part, said his top goal was ensuring the president didn’t win a second term.

“Some folks still don’t think I spend enough time with Congress. ‘Why don’t you get a drink with Mitch McConnell?’ they ask. Really?” Obama joked this year at the White House Correspondents Association dinner. “Why don’t you get a drink with Mitch McConnell?” (McConnell responded with a tweet, showing him with a beer at a barstool, motioning to an empty chair with a glass of red wine near it).

Obama has met only two times alone with McConnell, first in the Oval Office in August 2010. They met again in June 2011, in conjunction with Vice President Joe Biden, with whom McConnell has a better relationship. (McConnell and Boehner declined interview requests.)

Obama, of course, is hardly the only president to have had frosty relations with the political opposition. Harry Reid, the Senate’s top Democrat, called President George W. Bush both a loser and a liar. Still, some past leaders say that personal interactions go a long way toward smoothing over difficult policy debates, most famously exemplified by the relationship between President Reagan and then-House Speaker Tip O’Neill.

Gingrich, for example, said he had “a fair number” of private meetings with President Clinton, even though they clashed bitterly at times.

“If Obama had bipartisan breakfasts every week, you couldn’t have the current split,” Gingrich said. “You’d celebrate birthdays, you’d know about children. You’d have a relationship fundamentally different than the one it is today.”

Obama’s advisers disputed the idea that more dinners, more cocktail parties, more time on the golf course would have made much of a difference. “At the end of the day I don’t think it would change the impact with an opposition that was sworn to his downfall,” Plouffe said.

But some advisers acknowledged they may have been too reliant in the first two years on Rahm Emanuel, a former congressman who was Obama’s chief of staff during the biggest legislative push. He became the conduit to top congressional leaders, not Obama. (Emanuel, who is now mayor of Chicago, declined to comment.)

“If I rethink it, maybe we were too reliant on Rahm and should have engaged the president more in those early months and years,” Axelrod said. “Maybe it would have made a marginal difference.”

Obama earlier this year launched what became known as a charm offensive, dining with a select group of Republicans; some of those whom were courted said it was too little, too late.

“He’s actually a very nice man. He has a lot of personal qualities. He should do more of it,” said Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican who has worked with the White House on climate change, immigration, and a host of other issues. “He has some talent. It’s just not being maximized.

“History’s not going to be about Republicans saying no,” Graham added. “It’s going to be about him not getting people to say yes.”

Senator John McCain, the Republican presidential nominee who lost to Obama in 2008 and has since been both an adversary and an ally, seemed to give the president the benefit of the doubt.

“I’m not sure it’s all his fault,” he said as he walked through the Senate hallways last week. “We’re a very polarized Congress and nation right now. But he should do more outreach. He should have more conversations, more meetings, more dinners.”

When asked whether Obama’s rhetoric about changing the tone of politics — one that worked to great effect against McCain — was just a political line, McCain demurred.

“Every president wants that. And I think he particularly wants it now that he’s in his second term,” he said. “I think he wants it, don’t get me wrong. I think he’s sincere. I’m just not sure he exactly knows how to do it.”

• • •

In January 2008, when Obama won a crucial primary contest in South Carolina, exit polls said a key reason for his victory was that 55 percent of voters believed Obama was most likely to unite the country — twice as many as those who said the same about his chief rival, Hillary Clinton.

“We are up against decades of bitter partisanship that cause politicians to demonize their opponents instead of coming together,” Obama said in his victory speech that night. “But we are here tonight to say that this is not the America we believe in. I did not travel around this state over the last year and see a white South Carolina or a black South Carolina. I saw South Carolina.”

That would be the last time he would see South Carolina. He hasn’t been back since.

As president, Obama has taken more trips to South Korea (three) than he has to South Carolina (zero). He’s been to Ghana but never to Utah. He’s visited the citizens of Denmark (twice) more frequently than the residents of Kentucky (once).

Overall during his presidency, Obama has spent an average of less than four days in each of the red states he lost in 2012, while he has spent an average of 23 days in each of the blue states he won, according to an analysis of data compiled by Mark Knoller of CBS News. He’s made 428 visits to blue states and 75 visits to red states.

He’s never been to Arkansas as president, nor has he visited Republican-dominated North Dakota, South Dakota, or Idaho. He’s been once to Kansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, and Wyoming.

Obama, who often vacations on Martha’s Vineyard, has visited Massachusetts 13 times, for all or part of 42 days.

George H.W. Bush visited all 50 states during his four-year term; Bill Clinton visited all 50 by the end of his eight years in office; George W. Bush visited every state except Vermont, which passed legislation calling for his impeachment.

The itinerary is seen as bolstering Republicans’ frequent criticism of Obama: while he talks about bipartisanship, he has done little to act it out.

Only 18 percent of top Obama administration officials grew up in a state that voted for Mitt Romney, according to a National Journal review of the backgrounds of 250 staffers. Only four staffers grew up in Texas, the second most populous state, compared with nine who grew up abroad and 40 who grew up in New York.

• • •

The lesson Obama seemed to learn from his first term was that there was little hope of negotiating major legislation with Republicans who generally despised both his politics and his approach. The pundits may have been right after all: the United States will continue to be made up of red states and blue states — not purple.

So rather than trying to change the culture, he has tried to change policy — on his own terms. Without assistance from Congress, Obama has used executive power to make changes.

The Senate wouldn’t pass an energy bill designed to reduce global-warming gases. So Obama has pushed a series of regulations through the Environmental Protection Agency to curb such emissions. The House hasn’t passed an immigration reform overhaul. So Obama ordered the Department of Homeland Security to stop deporting young undocumented immigrants who moved to the United States with their parents.

These efforts have earned him more scorn from his critics. Republicans accuse him of waging a “war on coal.” Some have called him a “dictator” for using the power of his office to the fullest.

There have been times where he has tried to sway Congress, but in his second term few of them have been successful. The White House launched an aggressive push to tighten gun regulations, but it failed in the Senate.

Obama supported an immigration overhaul that passed the Senate but has languished in the House.

The tortuous relationship between Obama and Republicans has led, almost inevitably, to the latest round of brinkmanship.

House Republicans refused to approve a budget measure to keep the government open unless Obama’s health care law is scaled back or eliminated. Obama refused to negotiate away his primary legislative accomplishment, leading to a shutdown.

That was followed by Republican threats to refuse to raise the debt ceiling later this week.

Now, just when both sides must work together to end the shutdown and raise the debt ceiling, the failure to ameliorate the bitter feelings between the parties has put the nation on a political and financial precipice. Repairing that breach now stands as the president’s greatest challenge.

Until recently, Obama had resorted to joking about the broken nature of his relationship with the GOP. At a press conference earlier this year, Obama said he recognized that it is politically toxic for many Republicans to be seen with him.

They join him for the congressional picnic, come up and take photos with their family, and then return to the House floor and call him “a big-spending socialist,” he said.

But, he noted, his girls are getting older and want to spend less time with him.

“So I’ll be probably calling around, looking for somebody to play cards with me or something, because I’m getting kind of lonely in this big house,” he said. Sounding both sarcastic and exasperated, he added: “So maybe a whole bunch of members of the House Republican caucus want to come over and socialize more.”

But lost in the moment was a painful reality: for a man who once preached purple politics, the idea of him playing cards with Republicans — something he used to do in the Illinois state senate — had become a laugh line.

“It will always be a great regret that we couldn’t pick this lock. You know?” Axelrod said. “I don’t think the preponderance for blame lies with the president. But it’s nonetheless disappointing.”

Matt Viser can be reached at maviser@globe.com.