Are Americans clamoring for more bipartisanship from President Obama? Or do they want him to get things done? For most of the last year, I've been arguing that the public is less interested in bipartisanship than in sensing that the president is basically on the side of anxious voters who fear losing their jobs if they haven't lost them already. As a candidate, Barack Obama won the presidency because voters believed that he understood middle-class insecurity on a gut level while his Republican opponent did not. But once in office, the more cerebral, coolly analytical Obama came to the fore, and it was conservatives who managed to capitalize on the growing anger. As recently as two weeks ago, it looked as though the president would pivot to a more populist and more partisan course of action, demonstrating that he understood exactly where he went wrong. Now, though, we're getting mixed signals.
Instead of lecturing Republican legislators, President Obama has to start knocking Democratic heads and gear up for passing more legislation through reconciliation, leaving his Republican rivals sputtering with ineffectual rage.
Let's start with the good news for Democrats. After Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT) engineered a bipartisan jobs bill with Charles Grassley, the Iowa Republican who did more than almost anyone to delay the Democrats' health-care reform effort, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid put the kibosh on it, declaring it excessively larded with tax cuts unrelated to job creation. Reid had a decent point. The bill was riddled with "tax-extenders," provisions that renewed various tax breaks for big estates and corporate research and development that would otherwise expire. These cuts may or may not be good policy, but they didn't have an obvious place in a bill designed to tackle unemployment. Reid's willingness to intervene so forcefully must have had the backing of the White House, a sign that the president will use tough tactics when necessary. It's also an impressively gutsy move from a senator who is polling far behind his Republican opponents in his home state of Nevada, one that deserves to be rewarded with a Cabinet post or some other cushy sinecure in the very likely event he's not reelected.
One can imagine Senate Democrats using the reconciliation process to pass a partisan jobs bill, a tool that the Obama administration has been strangely reluctant to use. This would mean Democrats wouldn't have to share the credit for a popular measure. It's worth noting that the payroll-tax relief proposal is likely to prove extremely ineffective. The Congressional Budget Office analyzed a similar proposal and found that it would generate at most 300,000 jobs. And the jobs bill before the Senate is about half the size, thus giving it roughly half the jobs impact. Even so, it certainly makes good political sense for Democrats struggling to break the GOP's momentum.
While the president has made a politically shrewd shift to more partisanship on jobs, he is also engaged in a passive-aggressive effort to demonstrate that he really, really wants to work with Republicans on reforming the country's broken health-care system, if only they weren't so close-minded, stubborn, and unrealistic. On Tuesday, the president suggested that he's willing to meet Republicans halfway, to move away from some of the preferences of his party to pass transformative bills. But as most close observers understand, Democrats and Republicans won't see eye-to-eye on health-care reform because they have irreconcilable visions of what health-care reform even means. To be sure, the more cynical take is that congressional Republicans have little political incentive to cooperate with the Obama administration, given that a stance of unbending opposition has so far yielded handsome political returns. Even if this is true—and it's actually not obvious that it is—the fact that most Republicans deeply, sincerely, and ardently believe that the president's centralized approach to health-care reform is wrongheaded if not dangerous.
James Capretta, a key budget official in the Bush White House, has emerged as one of the most influential conservative voices in the health-care debate. In an essay for The Public Discourse, a high-brow Web zine with a socially conservative bent, he persuasively argued that the fundamental difference between the two sides on health-care reform was that the Obama administration wanted to leverage the power of the Medicare system to transform how medicine is practiced for the better, a futile effort in Capretta's view due to the political incentives at work. Conservative critics say they believe that only competitive private markets can really deliver lower prices and higher quality.
So when the president claims that the Senate health-care bill he still hopes to salvage includes many Republican ideas, he's stretching. Republicans wanted interstate competition for insurance policies, allowing New Yorkers to buy South Dakota policies that have fewer expensive mandates. The bill allows states to form interstate compacts, allowing New York to decide that New Yorkers can buy policies from certain other states—almost certainly other states with similarly stiff regulations. Just as the Harlem Globetrotters always choose to play the hapless Washington Generals, this isn't a real competition: It has the form of a Republican idea, but not the substance. And liberals offer a pretty good reason for not allowing real interstate competition: It might mean that all of the healthiest people in a state will flock to buy barebones policies registered in states with lax regulations, leaving the state government to deal with the oldest and the sickest. Rather than acknowledge this deep difference, however, the president insists that he's incorporated a Republican idea. Roughly the same thing applies to other supposedly conservative ideas in the Senate bill. There is something condescending about this faux bipartisanship. It fools no one but the gullible or the deliberately obtuse, and it obscures a real and legitimate debate. Congressional Republicans will concede nothing because they believe they're right. They will not give political cover to Blue Dogs for voting for a health-care reform bill they're convinced will prove economically ruinous for the country.
Presumably, the logic of faux bipartisanship is that it will convince voters that the president is making an earnest attempt to work with Republicans. But of course that's been the strategy since the inauguration, and it hasn't worked. Real bipartisanship is not going to happen because the parties are too far apart. Even if the polls say that voters want bipartisanship, they'd much prefer partisan action to passivity, sloth, and finger-pointing. Instead of lecturing Republican legislators, President Obama has to start knocking Democratic heads and gear up for passing more legislation through reconciliation, leaving his Republican rivals sputtering with ineffectual rage.
To their credit, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Minority Leader John Boehner have played a weak hand to great effect. As long as the Obama White House is too afraid to own its transformative agenda, both men will continue to wield power wildly out of proportion to their actual legislative strength. I still think that McConnell and Boehner should at least try to maneuver the president into passing an incremental health-care reform package, which is to say they should try to maneuver him into abandoning his central domestic policy goal. But that won't be easy.
Reihan Salam is a policy adviser at e21 and a fellow at the New America Foundation.