One year into President Obama's leadership of the country, bipartisanship and post-partisanship remain central themes and objectives of his stewardship. But there is neither a set definition nor a rule-book for what these terms mean and how they are to be applied. The nature and extent of bipartisanship and post-partisanship continue to evolve.
Our government is more bipartisan than a year ago due to the election of President Obama, his consistent articulation of this core principle, and his many efforts to apply it. Over the first few months of his presidency, bipartisanship accelerated based on the President's inclusion of ideas and leaders from both parties in his decision-making processes. Since then, the policies and actions of the Obama Administration have provided further context to define, clarify, and interpret the President's leadership on bipartisanship and post-partisanship.
President Obama sought to manage expectations and frame the scope of bipartisanship / post-partisanship in terms of an over-arching tone, a commitment to mutual respect, receptivity to the airing of disparate views, and his willingness to make decisions based on facts rather than ideology. As Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick stated it recently, "When he extends his hand, others have to reach back." Bipartisanship focuses on stimulating collaboration between the parties on issues of mutual concern, and post-partisanship focuses on altogether transcending the traditional dialectic between them.
Initially, some legislators and observers thought -- and hoped -- that this would translate to equal influence on every legislative issue and executive policy. Some Republicans intimated that, in the name of bipartisanship, the President should even embrace some of their policies which he believes are ill-advised. Others recognized this extreme interpretation to be merely a wistful and sophomoric notion, since a gratuitous ceding of presidential authority and impact would negate the value of President Obama's successful election, and would preclude the electorate from receiving the benefit of his best judgment.
The undulating vicissitudes of health care reform, the Afghanistan War, energy legislation, and financial regulation have illuminated both the President's commitment to, and the definition of, bipartisanship / post-partisanship. Other issues also offer guidance into the manner in which this objective is being pursued, including policies and legislation pertaining to Guantanamo Bay, job creation, "don't ask, don't tell," education reform, and the use of economic stimulus and TARP funds.
What "Bipartisanship" Does NOT Mean
At the one-year mark of the Obama Presidency, it is clear that bipartisanship does not translate to compromise and collaboration at any cost, for its own sake. It does not dictate decelerated progress that would be limited to that which could be achieved by near-unanimous support, as a "lowest common denominator" among the views of all stakeholders. It does not mean that the President is willing to capitulate to ultimatums from legislators that would forestall progress on his principal initiatives for the American people.
What "Bipartisanship" DOES Mean
Instead, President Obama is pursuing bipartisanship as an over-arching spirit of openness and receptivity to mutually respectful discussion, deliberation, and debate to enhance understanding of situations, effects, and impacts from a broad range of viewpoints, which then informs his decision-making accordingly. It amounts to fair consideration of all perspectives, which then leads to consensus-building, compromise, and balance. Rather than imposing a single formulary for the outcome of every issue, bipartisanship is achieved in a more holistic sense, by absorbing disparate points of view, compromising on some issues more than others, and achieving an overall balance among various issues. As White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel recently put it, "The question is: Are you compromising a set of principles, or are you making adjustments in strategies, roads, that can still achieve the same objectives? And not every compromise is the same in weight."
The Practice of Bipartisanship
Health care reform presents a microcosm of the President's pursuit of bipartisanship. His essential goals for reform remain intact, unaltered by opponents. Yet, he has absorbed the views of an ever-widening array of stakeholders, toward the pragmatic necessity of gaining the requisite Congressional support. For example, he has embraced a funding mechanism that had been proposed by his opponent in the Presidential race, which demonstrates bipartisanship in the purest sense. His willingness to advance competition (to contain costs and increase consumer choice) by means other than adding a public option into the health insurance market exchange is another example, even though it aimed to attract Democratic Senators as well as Republicans. Despite compromise on specific tactics, President Obama has not been willing to compromise on his overall objectives and principles of lowering costs, expanding access to care, reforming the marketplace, and doing so without delay. He is achieving balance within this issue area.
The President's financial industry policies, through both legislation and executive regulations, also achieve a balance between competing ideologies. On the one hand, there are efforts to tighten capitalization and lending guidelines, create an office dedicated to consumer protection in the financial industries, and establish limits on executive compensation. On the other hand, there are efforts to loosen the reins to increase lending to small businesses, and not be overly prescriptive in dictating the operations of financial institutions. The Administration has received input from a broad array of stakeholders, developed compromises between competing interests, and is achieving an overall balance in crafting solutions.
In contrast to the balanced approach within a specific issue area, in other cases, balance is sought among issues, on a holistic level. In the case of Afghanistan, the President's decision appealed much more to Republicans, as many Democrats would have preferred either not increasing the troop levels, or even reducing our presence there. This balanced approach is also evident in the postponing of changes to the "don't ask, don't tell" policy, and the education reform emphasis on teacher accountability, both of which are consistent with the historical views of Republicans.
On the other side of the ledger, the President remains deeply committed to reforming our energy system and improving our environment -- by advancing renewable and clean energy sources, instituting a "cap and trade" mechanism to reduce carbon emissions, and improving our energy security by reducing reliance on global sources -- which appeal much more to Democrats. Similarly, the closure of Guantanamo Bay and the consideration of using uncommitted stimulus and TARP funds to bolster job creation are more consistent with the views of Democrats.
By crafting priorities and policies that appeal to different ideologies on different issues, and leveraging them among each other, President Obama is pursuing and achieving bipartisanship across the spectrum of issues. Rather than succumbing to the "lowest common denominator" of what can be achieved by giving equal input and influence to every legislator on every issue, he is taking a holistic approach to collaboration and partnership.
The Path Forward
For those who seek to collaborate with the Obama Administration, it is not sufficient to stake out hard-line positions, be recalcitrant, and then complain that the President is not being bipartisan for not adopting their diametrically opposed views. He is willing to discuss and compromise, but opponents, too, must be willing and adaptive. After all, he is the President. Opponents must be willing to come to the negotiation table in good faith, and be committed to a sustained effort to achieve bonafide compromise. If they do, the Obama Administration has shown that they will be rewarded, if not immediately then eventually, if not on the issue of the day then on another issue, if not on a specific policy option then by having another issue of concern added to the agenda.
The Bottom Line
Bipartisanship and post-partisanship is a process, not a singular product or outcome. President Obama has demonstrated with resounding clarity that he is dedicated to, and leading, that process.