Obama's first big battle

Posted: Friday, February 20, 2009

Both sides seem pleased with their performances in the first big battle of the Obama presidency.

The president and his Democratic allies are hailing their stimulus victory and predicting the massive measure Obama signed Tuesday in Denver will spur an economic revival. Opposition Republicans tout their unity in opposing what they regard as an ill-conceived bill and remain convinced it won't succeed.

The two sides also disagree on why Obama failed in his effort to forge a bipartisan approach.

Democrats blame GOP negativism. Some Republicans say congressional Democrats undercut Obama's approach; others say Obama really didn't try for a bipartisan bill.

The real reason may be more basic.

In recent years, both houses of Congress have become more polarized ideologically, shrinking the number of pragmatic centrists in both parties, rendering the idea of forging a bipartisan coalition is more myth than reality. From taxes to entitlements, most members of the two parties hold diametrically opposed views.

That explains why just three congressional Republicans backed Obama's plan and only a handful of others even considered doing so. It strongly suggests that he will have to rely mainly on Democrats to pass his far-ranging program.

In doing so, he may benefit from the fact that attitudes in the country are less polarized than those in Washington. Up to one in three Americans, depending on the poll, consider themselves independents not tied irrevocably to either major party.

Those independents helped elect Obama and remain on his side.

As a result, his bipartisan rhetoric and the atmosphere he sought to create seem to have resonated with public opinion more than his failure to enlist GOP support, keeping his job-approval level well above the presidential vote he attracted in November.

One recent CNN poll showed three in four Americans believed he was doing enough to appeal to Republicans. And not only does Obama retain strong support from independents and Democrats, congressional Republicans poll considerably lower than congressional Democrats.

Congressional voting patterns illustrate what's happened on Capitol Hill.

According to the National Journal, which rates voting records on a scale of 0 (very conservative) to 100 (very liberal), only one Senate Democrat in 2007 ranked below 50 percent, Nebraska's Ben Nelson (46.7).

No Republicans surpassed 50, and only five still in office were above 40, topped by the three who sided with Obama: Maine's Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins and Pennsylvania's Arlen Specter.

By contrast, in the early 1990s, a half-dozen liberal Republicans had ratings extending well above 50, and a similar number of conservative Democrats scored below 50, making bipartisan coalitions more feasible. Liberal Democrats have replaced many moderate Republicans; more conservative Republicans have displaced moderate Democrats.

Similarly, in the House, the combination of reapportionment and a Republican collapse in the Northeast has produced a more polarized body, a smaller middle ground and a less national GOP. A decade and a half ago, Republicans, mostly moderates, held a third of New England's House seats; today, none. Nationally, only a handful of GOP moderates remain, but they joined their more conservative colleagues in opposing the bill.

The number of conservative Democrats also has dropped, though some showed their colors by voting against the bill.

This means most members reflect their ideologically polarized districts and suggests Obama probably would not have gotten many more Republicans without a full-scale change in the approach voters endorsed in November.

As House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer noted last week, bipartisanship does not mean that "because there are two parties, each party gets to write exactly half of every bill. ... That kind of bipartisanship would make elections irrelevant."

So while Washington's realities kept Obama from achieving a more bipartisan result, his approach pleased a majority of Americans.

Meanwhile, solid opposition has done little for Republicans except to enable them to say, "We told you so," if the stimulus plan doesn't work.

Of course, if the economy improves by next year, Republicans might find they were wrong on both the politics and the merits. And that could leave their already weakened national position even weaker.

• Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News.

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