President Barack Obama is getting a taste of the partisan stew that has caused so much bitterness in Washington during recent years. His choice of Timothy Geithner as treasury secretary got only a lukewarm 64-to-30 vote in the Senate, with Republicans leading the opposition. And Obama's economic recovery package—the centerpiece of his entire agenda—has run into GOP resistance.
The House, controlled by Democrats, approved the $819 billion package on a vote of 244 to 188 January 28, with not a single Republican supporting it. This signaled that the GOP might be more interested in hewing to its conservative ideology and playing the role of opposition party than in finding common ground with the new Democratic president. Partisan divisions in the Senate, which is expected to vote on the package in the next few days, are also severe. The lack of GOP support despite the president's charm offensive suggests that polarization in Washington remains deep and enduring.
Republicans say their tough stance is based on principle. Argues Rep. Tom Price of Georgia, chairman of the Republican Study Committee: "Instead of a thoughtful solution, House Democrats have delivered only more of the same failed policies that contributed to our economic strife." But Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg, a former adviser to President Bill Clinton, says, "I think they [Republicans] are making a big mistake. They will be defined by this vote." Obama was conciliatory after the House vote. "What we can't do," he said, "is drag our feet or allow the same partisan differences to get in our way."
Another indicator of the polarization is the blistering opposition to Obama from conservative talk-show host Rush Limbaugh, a barometer of hard-line attitudes on the right. Limbaugh says he hopes Obama will fail as president. Some Democrats say that while Limbaugh can rally the conservative base, such comments will alienate independents and motivate Democrats and it would be a mistake for the GOP to allow Limbaugh to become the dominant voice of the party.
Yet Obama promises to keep courting his critics. Politics is a "process," White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs tells reporters, and Obama hopes the atmosphere will improve if he keeps reaching out. To that end, on the same night that no House Republican voted for his economic plan, Obama held a can't-we-all-get-along reception for both GOP and Democratic legislators at the White House.
Obama's campaign of outreach also extends internationally. He granted his first television interview as president to al-Arabiya, a TV network oriented to Arab and Muslim viewers, which aides say was meant to set a new tone. "My job to the Muslim world is to communicate that the Americans are not your enemy," Obama said. He said he has sent special envoy George Mitchell on a peacemaking mission to the Mideast. "What I told him is start by listening, because all too often, the United States starts by dictating," Obama said.
His aides add that the new president will continue to apply that "listening principle" across the board.
- Read more by Kenneth T. Walsh.