"I guess I shouldn't be surprised by my friend, Joe Biden."
So said Dick Cheney during the bizarre and riveting electronic duel between the former and current Vice Presidents on this past weekend's Sunday morning shows. A tart comment punctuated by the artificial nicety friend is a common device in the congressional culture where both men toiled for years, but from Cheney's lips on this occasion it seemed particularly hollow, buried within a scorching critique of his White House successors. Biden gave as good as he got, blasting the Bush Administration with energy and spirit.
But this was all to be expected. Despite the President's paramount campaign promise to end the bitter recriminations and partisan animus that have defined Washington politics for almost two decades, genuine feelings of friendship across the aisle rarely animate the contours of the debate in Barack Obama's Washington.
Obama once appeared exceedingly well qualified to change the tone in Washington. He came armed with his résumé of bipartisan efforts in the Illinois state senate and in Congress, his balanced, unflappable temperament and his instinctual and biographical remove from the acidic Washington ethos. And Obama seemed to believe that, fundamentally, the system needed changing. He argued that securing real solutions to the biggest challenges confronting America health care, energy, global warming, education required legislators and citizens of all political stripes to contribute to and endorse the programs meant to solve them. Unlike Bill Clinton, Obama didn't emphasize detailed "third way" policy ideas. Rather, he simply posited that well-meaning people of both parties could work together in good faith to find resolutions in the nation's interest.
Yet, as a candidate, Obama was never very specific about those policy ideas and was scarcely tested by the media. Once in the White House, faced with a towering heap of problems, cosseted by a Democratic majority and confronted by a hostile Republican crowd, Obama cast his lot with a legislative strategy reliant on getting overwhelming support from Democrats, at the expense of building bipartisan coalitions and forming solid relationships with the opposition.
These days, Republicans have even less political incentive to cooperate with the President. Shattered after the 2008 election, the party nevertheless has found a shortcut back to power and, especially in the wake of Senator Evan Bayh's planned retirement, has a chance to win control of Congress in 2010 by positioning itself as Obama's automatic resistance. When its policy stances match those of the President (the surge in Afghanistan, a deficit-reduction commission), it has registered its support through clenched teeth and muted statements or even abandoned its previous postures lest it build up Obama.
Meanwhile, Obama's left flank has deserted him too. Liberals believe the President has already wasted too much time trying to woo a cynical opposition that cares only about dragging him down. Warriors on both sides have rushed to the mattresses to win every petty squabble and 15-minute news cycle. While candidate Obama admirably rejected the artifice and showmanship of politics, even the White House now regularly joins the fray, with press secretary Robert Gibbs often using the briefing-room rostrum to score points. Engaging in such antics might produce a short-term high, and might even yield some short-term victories, but it is no way to make friends or achieve anything meaningful for the country.
Now, in the face of growing Republican power and the loss of the Democrats' filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, the White House has been forced to make a midterm correction and attempt to resuscitate the idea of the bipartisan coalitions that candidate Obama once promised. The response to the President's overtures has mostly been cool. Across the board, the GOP leadership, more moderate rank-and-file members, talk-radio hosts and Tea Party activists all agree: stay the course, hope Obama's job-approval numbers sink further and then seize back power when the time is ripe.
Republicans have become so good at enforcing partisan loyalty for party-line votes that the White House is unlikely to successfully pick off a handful of GOP moderates on any given issue to create a measure of bipartisanship. And so if the President is going to keep himself from wasting 2010 and maybe his entire first term he is going to have to find a way to make the Republican leaders in Congress trust him enough to work with him on a few big issues.
Given the history of the past year, and the last 20 years, that is not going to be easy. A Democratic plan to force a series of politically challenging votes for Republicans, rather than concentrate on passing legislation, will not warm things up. And a recent White House meeting about job growth featured tense exchanges between Obama and both Republican Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell and Republican House minority leader John Boehner. There has already been much ugly speculation about the upcoming White Househosted health care summit: whether it is an actual attempt at bipartisanship or some sort of trap spiked with the telegenic eloquence of the still likable President meant to embarrass Republicans. On the current trajectory, no politician will enter that room feeling too rosy about the other side's motives.
At this point, friendship may be too much to ask for. The country wants to see business getting done civilly and responsibly, not watch punches thrown on a frosty Beltway playground. Obama needs to conduct some sort of face-to-face intervention with amenable senior Republican legislators, to convince them that it is possible to make a deal in one or two important areas without agreeing on every issue or laying down their arms for the next election. He needs to remind his adversaries that the purpose of government, ultimately, is to improve the lives of the American people, that its leaders whether in the majority or the minority shouldn't want to be part of a system that inspires so little faith. And that, friends or not, the only way to build back the trust of the American people is to start to trust each other, if only a little bit.