Barack Obama's campaign for president was buoyed by at least two critical factors. First, he benefited from the public's wholesale rejection of the Republican incumbent. But more than that, he came to epitomize the alternative to the partisan gridlock. "Change," in Obama's vision, meant not only moving the White House out of Republican and into Democratic hands. It meant moving from a state of partisan stalemate to post-partisan collaboration.
He tapped into a frustration that journalist Ron Brownstein identified in his 2007 book The Second Civil War , which argued that extreme partisanship was standing in the way of real reform in Washington.
Brownstein indicted a lack of leadership at the top—a seeming aversion to collaboration across the aisle. But Brownstein didn't stop there. He went on to suggest that the rules of the game—the way districts are gerrymandered, the way campaign chests are filled, the way issues become political footballs bandied about by special interest groups in Washington—made it almost impossible for lawmakers to break out of their partisan molds. In too many cases, the benefits of reaching consensus between adversaries paled in comparison to the cost. Members of either party willing to bridge the gap faced dire consequences: an angered political base, a dearth of campaign contributions, a primary challenge from a more partisan opponent, and likely a haranguing by pundits eager for media attention. The resulting dysfunction led to a diagnosis Bill Clinton articulated at the 2008 Democratic National Convention: "The American Dream is under siege at home, and America's leadership in the world has been weakened."
Two months into his administration, some have come to question whether the president has already failed in his effort to change the tone in Washington. Despite private meetings at the White House, compromises on key issues, and overwhelming public support for the president's agenda, not a single Republican House member voted for the president's stimulus plan.
But even a cursory reading of The Second Civil War makes clear that no politician—not even one as charismatic as Barack Obama—could have hoped to upend the status quo overnight. Doing so would have been akin to turning the Titanic on a dime. No matter how determined or skillful, no one should have expected the new administration to remake instantly the foundation that has ratcheted partisanship up for the better part of two generations.
The new president may be a transformational political figure, but we ought not castigate him for failing to perform a miracle. His success should be measured by a different yardstick. Most important, we should gauge how well he maintains support of the so-called swing voters—namely those who voted for Bush in 2004, but against McCain four year later. No doubt that the Democratic base voted for "change" away from Republican government last fall. But swing voters piled onto the Obama bandwagon because he promised to end the gridlock. If his policy agenda stays in line with their political sensibilities, Republicans may be forced more often to buck their more parochial interests.
As crucial will be the new administration's willingness to tackle the structural issues that drive members of each party to the poles. While states largely control the boundaries of congressional districts, Obama could wield the bully pulpit to push for more competitive contests, rather than maximizing the number of safe seats for each party. And in cases where Obama can transfer policy leadership to commissions not entirely beholden to party interests, he will be better able to chip away at the institutions that have driven Washington to dysfunction.
The persistence of Washington's polarization has proven that Ron Brownstein was right about the root causes of partisanship. But even if Obama's political talent could not retrench two generations of partisan rancor in three weeks, all is not lost. Maybe now we can agree that the root causes of polarization demand more than inspired leadership. And that's real progress, by any stretch.
Marc Dunkelman is vice president for strategy and communications at the Democratic Leadership Council.