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Obama's Post-Partisan Promise Mellows Amid First Term Gridlock

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WASHINGTON -- As President Barack Obama enters his second term, his aides have concluded he likely will fall short on one of his signature promises.

Barring some collectively cathartic Beltway experience, the Obama administration will not usher in an era of post-partisanship. The forces of gridlock continue to have the upper hand, and they will have a tangible impact on the president's tactics and ambitions.

Obama and his aides are neither fretting nor apologizing. Rather, while expressing a continued preference for politics by consensus, they are embracing the need for a more aggressive, even confrontational approach. The president signaled as much by vowing simply to not negotiate with Republicans over raising the debt ceiling. He upped the ante with the introduction of his gun policy reforms, which were more comprehensive than expected.

The message was solidified this past week with the announcement that Obama for America -- the organization that lifted the president to two election victories -- would be converted to a non-profit entity for the express purpose of pushing the White House's agenda in Obama's second term. One senior administration official was practically giddy about the prospect of using the organization's massive email list for policy purposes, admitting the campaign group had failed to do so effectively during the president's first term.

The White House has made similar boasts before, so skeptics have their reasons. But this time, a dysfunctional Washington and a weakened but more dogmatic Republican Party make a combative strategy the best option.

"Obviously, we hoped for something better," conceded David Axelrod, Obama's longtime adviser, in an interview. “And to the extent that the president can do more, he will. But this is largely a function of a decision on the Republican Party to try and thwart him at every turn as a political strategy."

As for the next term, "I think a lot of it will end up having to do with how the Republican Party sees the future," Axelrod added. "Survival is a strong instinct. If Republicans think there is a political advantage to them personally to continue this Manichean struggle, then that doesn't bode well."

For Axelrod, this is no small admission. As the chief architect of Obama's public image, he molded the concept of post-partisanship into a campaign theme in 2008. And as the president's right-hand man during the first two years in the White House, he held firm to the idea that political comity wasn't just a means to an end, but an end-goal in its own right.

But gridlock has a way of grinding down even the most idealistic soul. During Obama's first term, Republicans rebuffed the president time and again. Eventually, the president's aides concluded that more could be done working around or against Congress, rather than with it.

The seeds of that approach -- which involve barnstorming outside the Beltway, urging voters to pressure elected officials, and taking harder lines for negotiations -- were planted during the payroll tax cut fight in early 2012 and bloomed during the fiscal cliff standoff at year's end. With high-stakes budget fights over the debt ceiling, government funding, and sequestration coming in the first few months of 2013, the more combative Obama will be front and center once more.

"The president took the case directly to the American people and involved them more fully in the discussion," Axelrod said of the payroll tax cut and fiscal cliff fights. "I do think that was a significant change and one that is still very much available to the president. Not just available to him. I think he is convinced that is essential going forward."

The outsider approach, however, only softens the opposition so much. Buffered by redistricting and skittish about inviting primary challenges, some Republicans never feel the public pressure the president applies. At some point -- as the White House concluded during the closing days of the fiscal cliff standoff, when it dispatched Vice President Joe Biden to negotiate with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) -- the administration has to return to the inside game, sit down and cut a deal.

Looking at the legislative map, there appear to be few opportunities for such dealmaking in the second term. The White House has refused, as a matter of principle, to negotiate over the debt ceiling. But it will likely make concessions elsewhere to avoid a government shutdown. Axelrod did predict a constructive compromise on immigration reform. "It would be a suicidal impulse for Republicans in Congress to continue to block that," he said.

But getting to "yes" with the GOP on other topics will require a bit of legislative craft. The macro solutions, such as changing the way congressional districts are drawn, won't happen till after Obama leaves office. On a micro level, White House allies are pushing for the administration to engage directly with individual Republicans rather than the leadership of the party, in hopes of building majority support for legislation by peeling off moderate members of the GOP. The underlying theory is that it's better to find consensus with a few than to fail with the mass.

"He campaigned as someone who was a pragmatist and willing to negotiate to move an agenda forward," said Jen Psaki, who served as a spokeswoman for both the White House and the 2012 campaign. But there were always limits. Inside the White House, she added, "there is a recognition that there are only so many hours that you can spend sitting around the table talking to or at people who have no interest in helping you."

Back in 2008, the concept of a post-partisan Washington did not seem all that unfeasible. Obama's political rise was premised on a pledge to sand down government's sharp, depressing edges. Voters flocked to the idea.

But not everyone was a believer. Upon leaving his post on Obama's transition team as a liaison to progressive groups, Mike Lux warned that pursuing a post-partisan norm would make for a rudderless first term. Major change, he argued, required partisan "rancor."

Looking back, Lux said it "seemed so obvious to me."

"There are many predictions I make where I have some doubt about them. That wasn't one," he added. "I'm not sure [post-partisanship] is the right goal. I'm not sure it was ever the right goal."

Few have questioned the president's sincerity in trying.

It started before Obama was sworn in. In the days before his inauguration, he lavished praise on the man he defeated, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), and broke bread with conservative columnists, many of whom had been critical of his candidacy.

"It was a strong attempt to send a signal during the transition that he was going to reach out to both sides," recalled one former aide. "There was a sense of a new beginning and giving each other a chance."

But that sense dissipated quickly. Top GOP leaders had concluded, on the night of his inauguration, that their path back to power lay in lockstep opposition. When it came time for Obama to push his economic stimulus package, House Republicans united against it.

The president's health care reform push faced a similar reception, only passing through political perseverance and a quirk of parliamentary rules. The political costs were severe. The 2010 midterm elections were a disaster for the president.

The White House nevertheless tried its hand at post-partisanship again. The president concluded that to succeed with any legislative items in the second half of his first term, he needed to show willingness to give ground on deficit reduction first.

Republicans weren't impressed. Two showdowns (one over shutting down the government, the other over defaulting on the country's debt) marked 2011. A grand bargain proved elusive. By the time 2012 rolled around, so too did another presidential campaign. Gridlock persevered.

That it did was, in one sense, a product of the times. The debates over the size and role of government are more bitter during times of massive deficits and lingering unemployment.

But the problems Obama faced were more complex than that. Longtime Republican strategist Mark McKinnon, who refused to help McCain in '08 because he was so drawn to Obama's message, argued that this White House simply got caught in same partisan undercurrents as administrations of the past.

"I think about it a lot," McKinnon said in an interview. "The interesting thing to me is the parallel between [George W.] Bush and Obama. If you compare the speeches between Obama in '07 and Bush in early-'99, you couldn't tell the difference. It was so much about changing the tone and culture in Washington. Now, they both failed on that goal and for similar and different reasons.

"President Bush failed because of the [Florida] recount. The well was just poisoned from the beginning ... which is not to say that he isn't culpable. But the point is that when he came in, with a message and a mission to change Washington, he hit a brick wall. With Obama, it was really the birthers. You had a significant enough portion of the body politic who didn't see the president as legitimate and who therefore created a crowbar for hyper-partisanship."

Those who experienced the process more directly extend the finger-pointing beyond the birther crowd. As former White House communications director Anita Dunn put it in an interview: "It takes two to be post-partisan." The Republican Party, she said, felt "it wasn't in their interest to work in a post-partisan way."

Now, as they prepare for another four years, aides to Obama have refined their approach to political gridlock. Instead of something that can be swept aside with appeals to the greater good, it must be chipped at systematically. It's a more cynical take than in 2008, but not utterly dark or depressing.

Those who know Obama best insist that he isn't giving up on the notion of post-partisanship. Pressing the idea is a useful public relations tactic, they argued, portraying opponents as hopelessly intractable if they don't bend. Moreover, the public still wants him to try. According to a new HuffPost/YouGov poll, 39 percent of respondents want the president to cooperate more with Republicans. Only 22 percent want him to cooperate less; 16 percent think he cooperates too much and 38 percent think he doesn't cooperate enough.

To his credit, the president never said that the tone and tenor of Washington would change with the flick of a switch. Old habits do die hard. But time is running out. There are four years left for Obama and, if history is any guide, fewer years left in his legislative window. In the pursuit of a post-partisan norm, he and his staff have tempered expectations.

"I think maybe the whole idea of post-partisanship is a little bit of a misnomer because we have system of government that allows for partisanship, that allows for different points of view, so you will always have some partisanship," said Axelrod. "The question is whether it becomes so dogmatic and unyielding ... that we can't function well as a country."

This article is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post that closely examines the most pressing challenges facing President Obama in his second term. To read other posts in the series, click here.

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