Obama’s Very Weak Hand
When all else fails, try bipartisanship.


James C. Capretta

Suddenly, bipartisanship is all the rage at the Obama White House.

The president has announced that he will hold a bipartisan gathering on February 25 at Blair House, across the street from the White House, in an effort to get the health-care legislative effort out of the political ditch it is now in. Plans are also under way to stand up a bipartisan Debt Commission by executive order. The commission’s mandate would be to report back to the president and Congress on how to get the nation’s fiscal house in order — with a rather convenient reporting deadline of just after the November midterm elections.

In the daily back-and-forth of political news coverage, it is easy to lose sight of what a stunning turnabout this renewed interest in bipartisanship represents for Barack Obama. For more than a year, his administration attempted to govern based on an entirely different approach. The Democrats in the White House and on Capitol Hill welcomed any Republican willing to jump aboard their legislative plans. But, as the president and his top advisers repeatedly said, they were going to move ahead with “their agenda” — with or without willing Republican participation.

And it seemed to work — at least initially. Just after getting sworn into office, the president signed the so-called “stimulus” bill. It was heavy on additional federal spending, reflecting the prevailing sentiment among congressional Democrats that what was needed to put people back to work was another heavy dose of governmental activism. Three Senate Republicans (although one is now a Democrat) lent their support to the effort and provided the crucial last votes that delivered to the president his early-in-the-term, momentum-building victory.

The stimulus effort provided the template for how the White House planned to move ahead with the rest of its first-term agenda. To run off a string of additional victories, Democrats would need only to hold their sizeable majorities together around plans reflecting their party’s governing priorities. With Democrats united and determined, moderate Republicans would see legislative passage of something as all but inevitable and decide to join the process rather than be left entirely out of “historic” legislative efforts.

On health care, all seemed to be running according to plan through the spring and early summer. The president gave a series of speeches intended to build momentum and let Democrats know that this was the year to finally “get it done.” And some Republicans, especially in the Senate, sensing that something indeed would pass, were willing to at least sit down with their Democratic counterparts to see if their participation would make a difference in the outcome.

But then reality hit. Specifically, the legislative clock was ticking, and the Democrats had to finally unveil what they actually had in mind on health care. From the moment the first versions of the House bill were made public in mid-July 2009, voter sentiment turned steadily and decisively against the entire effort.

The president had promised a non-threatening plan that would painlessly root out wasteful spending, provide almost free coverage to millions, and entail minimal disruption of existing arrangements. But once the actual legislation emerged, it was clear that what the Democrats actually planned to deliver was something entirely different from what had been advertised. The bills drafted in Congress would create another massively expensive entitlement program, financed with burdensome taxes, heavy-handed and job-killing mandates, and arbitrary cuts in Medicare. Moreover, it was clear that the Democrats wanted the federal government eventually to call all of the shots in the health-care sector, which most voters rightly view as a recipe for counterproductive bureaucracy and lower-quality care.