The president meets with Republican leaders and headlines are made. Not because anything actually came out of the meeting, but because there finally was a meeting. Sadly, more time probably was spent debating the shape of the meeting table than in the two-hour meeting itself. And perhaps more sadly, it took a “shellacking,” the deafening roar of a too-long-ignored people, to get the opposing sides together—at any table.
In dysfunctional D.C. land, apparently the president does not meet with opposition leaders. In his two years in office, President Obama met one-on-one only once with Sen. Mitch McConnell, and never with Rep. John Boehner.
I’m not going to argue that previous administrations were better or worse, or blame any one person, but is it any wonder that there is a partisan divide? The partisan culture of Washington is infectious, but it is the people outside the Beltway who suffer, who are ravaged by the economic uncertainty plaguing us.
George W. Bush and Barack Obama both campaigned on changing the tone in Washington, on working across the aisle, on bringing the country together. At the dawn of each administration, there was hope for a new civility. Not “goody two-shoes niceness and mere etiquette,” but robust, passionate debate. Followed not by compromise where one side loses, but by consensus where all agree to move forward.
After the meeting Tuesday with GOP leaders, President Obama remarked: “None of this is going to be easy.” He’s right, of course. But did he think it would be? Democracy in our republic is necessarily ugly. And it takes leadership to be willing to change.
There is always hope. Look back at Obama’s words and those of his predecessor. Can you tell who said what?
1. On tone:
“In a system of two parties, two chambers, and two elected branches, there will always be differences and debate. But even tough debates can be conducted in a civil tone, and our differences cannot be allowed to harden into anger. To confront the great issues before us, we must act in a spirit of goodwill
and respect for one another—and I will do my part.”
“Washington may think that saying anything about the other side, no matter how false, no matter how malicious, is just part of the game. But it’s precisely such politics that has stopped either party from helping the American people. Worse yet, it’s sowing further division among our citizens, further distrust in our government. So, no, I will not give up on trying to change the tone of our politics.”
2. On politics as usual:
“We’ve seen a bipartisan process buckle under the weight of these withering forces...we’ve seen business as usual in Washington, but I believe we can and must put this kind of cynical politics aside.”
“There are things more important, even in Washington, than politics as usual...Our democracy requires us to come together and to get things done for the citizens of this great republic.”
3. On working together:
“We have one country, one constitution, and one future that binds us. And when we come together and work together, there is no limit to the greatness of America.”
“We can once again let Washington’s bad habits stand in the way of progress. Or we can pull together and say that in America, our destiny isn’t written for us but by us.”
“They sent us to Washington to work together, to get things done, and to solve the problems that they’re grappling with every single day.”
“We are not the first to come here with government divided and uncertainty in the air. Like many before us, we can work through our differences, and achieve big things for the American people.”
4. On partisanship:
“The American people want their leaders in Washington to set aside partisan differences...We live in historic times. The challenges and opportunities are plain for all to see.”
“The times are too serious, the stakes are too high for this same partisan playbook.”
5. On the mid-term elections:
“Yesterday, the people went to the polls and they cast their vote for a new direction...I’m obviously disappointed with the outcome of the election...I share a large part of the responsibility...it is now our duty to put the elections behind us and work together...on the great issues facing this country...we can work together over the next two years.”
“After what I’m sure was a long night for a lot of you—and needless to say it was for me—I can tell you that some election nights are more fun than others. Some are exhilarating; some are humbling...What yesterday also told us is that no one party will be able to dictate where we go from here, that we must find common ground in order to set—in order to make progress on some uncommonly difficult challenges.”
6. On debate:
“I’m a big believer not just in the value of a loyal opposition, but in its necessity. Having differences of opinion, having a real debate about matters of domestic policy and national security—and that’s not something that’s only good for our country, it’s absolutely essential. It’s only through the process of disagreement and debate that bad ideas get tossed out and good ideas get refined and made better. And that kind of vigorous back and forth—that imperfect but well-founded process, messy as it often is—is at the heart of our democracy. That’s what makes us the greatest nation in the world.”
“America needs to conduct this debate...in a reasoned and respectful tone. Feelings run deep on this issue—and as we work it out, all of us need to keep some things in mind. We cannot build a unified country by inciting people to anger, or playing on anyone’s fears, or exploiting the issue...for political gain. We must always remember that real lives will be affected by our debates and decisions, and that every human being has dignity and value...”
7. On the need for civility:
“...there’s a chance to show people that we can get beyond the politics of Washington, D.C.; that we’re able to treat each other with civility, and at the same time, accomplish big goals.”
“I still believe we can replace acrimony with civility, and gridlock with progress. I still believe we can do great things, and that here and now we will meet history’s test.”