03/12/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Change vs. Bipartisanship: What Happens When You Throw a Bipartisan Party and Half the Guest List Stays Home?

In the Presidential election, Barack Obama ran on two messages. One was a message of change, following eight years of a the most morally, administratively, and ideologically bankrupt administration in our nation's history, which has left our country in its most precarious state since the 1930s. The other was a message of unity, of getting past petty partisanship and restoring an atmosphere of civility to Washington so that government could actually do something again for the lives of everyday Americans. Those messages lived in peaceful but uneasy coexistence during the Presidential campaign and the transition, when soon-to-be President Obama did everything possible to avoid pointing fingers. The problem with a message of bipartisanship, however, is that it makes it very difficult to tell the story of why things are so bad that we need dramatic change.

It may or may not have been possible for Barack Obama to continue to blend both of these messages as President. Doing so would have required offering the American people a compelling, honest, blemishes-and-all story about what has happened between the New Deal of FDR and the Raw Deal of George W. Bush. That story might have begun with a description of Roosevelt's pragmatic, experimental approach to leadership in a time of economic crisis--essentially, "let's make our best guesses, see what works, and keep what works and discard what doesn't"--and how that led to unemployment insurance, Social Security, roads, rural electricity, federal insurance for our bank deposits, and a host of other programs we have today that guarantee our economic safety in troubled times--and most importantly, how it put able-bodied, hard-working Americans back to work. The President could then have gone on to describe how that spirit of experimental pragmatism often got lost over the next 50 years, as constituencies grew for programs that were no longer working so well and politicians refused to make hard choices, leading Ronald Reagan to tap into a public sentiment that too much money was leaking out of the bucket into which they were pouring their tax dollars. He could have described how ultimately Reagan's revolution degenerated into Bush's disastrous return to Hoover economics, with its blind faith in unregulated markets and corporate greed, and how the rallying cries of "tax and spend" and "government is the problem, not the solution" have prevented us from investing in America for 30 years, leaving us dangerously reliant on foreign oil, behind other nations in educating our children, and vulnerable to all of the dangers faced by a nation with a collapsing infrastructure and virtually no protections against natural disasters like floods and hurricanes because we have failed to invest in both the infrastructure to keep our cities and towns safe and the energy solutions that could protect our endangered atmosphere. He could give that speech today, and it would likely reach voters in the political center whose support he needs to maintain if he is to prevent those on the right from galvanizing support for obstructionism.

But a failure to distinguish alternative meanings of bipartisanship, an apparent miscalculation about the political and ideological extremism of the Republicans left in Washington in the wake of the Democratic landslides of the last two electoral cycles, and an unwillingness to fight back when attacked led the Obama administration unwittingly to participate in a setback to both change and bipartisanship, as they urged Democratic lawmakers to cut and paste elements of the conservative ideology that has unhinged our economy into a package designed to resuscitate it and emboldened the Republican leadership in a way that has sown the seeds of renewed partisan polarization. Whereas two weeks ago substantially more Americans supported the President's recovery plan than opposed it, according to Rasmussen polls, by early last week those numbers had reversed, with support or opposition falling squarely along party lines. The situation has become dire enough that the President has wisely chosen to go on a campaign-style tour in support of the measure.

The problem lies in the way the White House has attempted to offer a bipartisan solution to the nation's problems. They could have construed "bipartisanship" in one of several ways. One is pragmatism, taking good ideas from wherever they come, and making clear to Republicans that if they have ideas other than the ones that had led us over the precipice over the last several years (and several Senate Republicans have, in fact, offered constructive suggestions), the President's door was open. This is precisely what the public wanted from the new President. Over the last two years, the pollsters Stan Greenberg, Celinda Lake, and I tested messages with thousands of voters, and what all but the most ideological voters said in dozens of ways was that they wanted pragmatic, "common sense," problem-solving government, not symbolic politics and ideological inflexibility.

A second meaning of transcending partisanship is to end to the politics of personal destruction and attacks on the other side's patriotism and integrity that we have seen since the Republicans opened fire on the Clintons in the 1990s and which they used effectively to quell Democratic opposition to every ill-begotten, unconstitutional, and illegal action undertaken by the Bush administration, from torture to wiretapping to the politicization of the Justice Department. Our polling data showed that the public clearly had a strong desire for this form of bipartisanship as well.

President Obama has clearly made tremendous efforts to achieve both of these forms of bipartisanship, and for that he deserves high marks. But he has also implicitly adopted a third construal of the term, which not only undercuts his promise of change but fails to recognize that the public overwhelmingly elected not only a Democratic President but supermajorities of Democrats in both houses of Congress, and they did this for a reason: They did not want a continuation of the failed Republican policies and ideology of the last eight years. The third meaning of "bipartisan" the President embraced was to invite an ideological fringe minority not only to the table (and to Superbowl at the White House) but to the microphone, allowing them to get their message out more loudly than the message of both the President and the governing majority, and to give them unwarranted power to amend or veto legislation for the indefinite future--all while they were taking potshots at the man who magnanimously gave them a seat at the table. This construal of "bipartisan" runs the danger of producing legislation that seeks the "golden mean" between truth and falsehood, good policies and failed ones, and exhorts Democratic legislators who were elected to enact the best policies they possibly can to "split the difference" between good ideas by some of the best economic minds in the country and the failed ideas of the rigid ideological descendants of Herbert Hoover. There is, in fact, nothing John McCain has to offer as words of wisdom on the economy that President Obama has not already heard in McCain's three decades crusading to block or dismantle the kind of federal regulations that could have prevented the current crisis, and McCain represents the left wing of what's left of his party in Washington.

In fact, the 2006 and 2008 Senate and Congressional elections cleared out all but a handful of moderate Republicans from Washington, leaving no one to reach across the aisle to but economic and social extremists who have had no interest in attending the President's bipartisan party. They are more interested in salvaging their own party and figuring out how to return themselves to relevance. They are precisely the politicians the American people made clear in November they do not want shaping further policy.

Yet when Republican ideologues began attacking the President's efforts to resuscitate the economy they were instrumental in destroying, the President responded with a fourth meaning of "transcending partisanship"--refusing to respond to partisan attacks and appointing yet another Republican to his Cabinet, this time to his economic team as Secretary of Commerce. When Republican Senators like Corker, Shelby, and McConnell began describing the President's recovery package as the usual tax and spend liberal big-government solution, there was only one appropriate response: "Senator, you and your party are the ones whose fiscal irresponsibility and failed ideology have saddled our children and grandchildren with more debt in the last eight years than all the debt amassed in the prior 200 years combined, and your radical economic ideology has led to a financial crisis and soaring unemployment like we haven't seen since the Great Depression. If you have something constructive to offer, I'm all ears. But if all you have to offer is partisan sniping and the same tired ideas that are costing people their homes, their jobs, and their savings, neither I, nor the American people, have any interest in hearing from you further." And when a Republican Congressman spoke of how he and his colleagues constitute an insurgency that should learn from the Taliban how to thwart the Democratic majority, the President should have personally demanded his resignation and branded every Republican in the House with his words until he had no choice but to resign.

Instead, in a one-way spirit of "bipartisanship" (which by definition requires two to tango), the White House refused to "dignify the attacks"--the standard failed Democratic response to viscerally appealing or appalling attacks from the other side--allowing the Republicans to gain traction with the public. The White House sent out surrogates like Larry Summers, who understands economics but not how to talk to the public about economics, against well-coached, media-savvy Republicans like House Minority Leader John Boehner, who demolished Summers on Meet the Press with well-crafted lines mixed with economic nonsense. But no one in the Obama camp was willing to call it nonsense, and weeks of Republican re-branding and withering attacks on the "reckless fiscal irresponsibility" of the Democrats has turned failed but catchy conservative taglines into what the public now sees as a reasonable alternative to Keynesian economics (which no one in the administration has explained to them in lay terms--most importantly, why after hearing for forty years that deficit spending is bad thing that they should now embrace it). The result has become a he-said/she-said format on television, a Crossfire-style "debate" that has re-legitimized radical conservative ideology and has turned the three or four moderate Republican Senators like Olympia Snow and Susan Collins, who should have been quaking in their boots at any thought of voting against the President's plan, into "elder statesmen" who are saving the day and now wield inordinate power.

When not a single Republican member of the House voted for the stimulus and recovery plan, the President could and should have lambasted them and sent a warning to their Senate counterparts. I would not presume to put words into the mouth of a man who can use the English language as well as anyone alive, but something like the following might have been appropriate: "What the Republicans in the House did today was reckless, irresponsible, and showed an extraordinary indifference to the suffering of the people in this country who have worked hard and played by the rules but are losing their homes, their jobs, their health insurance, and their life savings. These are the same Republicans who stripped the government of any power to regulate the corporate greed that has led us down the road. So let me say to those members of the House: If you want to continue to be part of the problem and not part of the solution, you can make yourself irrelevant. If you want to join in a constructive conversation, my door is always open. But let me just send a clear message to your Republican colleagues in the Senate: I hope you will not do what your counterparts in the House just did. I have made every effort to reach out my hand to you, but my patience, and the patience of the American people, is not limitless."

Unfortunately, when the House Republicans slapped down the President's outstretched hand with their clenched fists, he chose to say nothing about it, a move that not only made him look weak but emboldened Republicans to step up their attacks, which they saw they could make against the wildly popular new President with impunity. Bullies respond to gestures of good will as signs of weakness, and they respond with contempt and further aggression. When the President finally did begin to hit back this week, he did so effectively, but he left out one crucial element of the story: why his tone was changing. As was clear from the tenor of media accounts of his change in tone (which largely ranged from negative to perplexed), he did not explicitly tie that change to the actions of his opponents, leaving them, and media talking heads, to question his consistency of message and tone, rather than to recognize it as a natural reaction to having extended himself to the opposition far beyond the extent he needed to and their responding so ungraciously.

What has unfolded over the last week was both predictable and avoidable. President Obama could have told one of two stories to "sell" his recovery package, depending on the extent to which he wanted to speak directly about the Republicans' degree of responsibility for our current economic meltdown. The first would have been the more hard-edged but also not only the more accurate but the more memorable, because it has the "story structure" our brains are wired to "look for": "The Republicans had eight years to test their radical economic ideology, and it has led to disaster. They took a record budget surplus as far as they eye can see, which President Clinton created for the first time in 30 years, and turned it into a record deficit that exceeded a trillion dollars last year alone. They took an economy that had created twenty million jobs in the eight years of the Clinton administration and lost millions of jobs for the first time since the Great Depression. And they relentlessly followed an ideology that asserted that if you just hand money to the wealthy and well-connected and eliminate all regulations on corporate greed, everything will somehow magically work out. Well, it didn't. We've lost 3 million jobs in the last year alone, and the economy is spiraling downward fast. That is why in November the American people spoke, and they spoke clearly. They entrusted me to be their President and they created extraordinary Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress because they knew the country could not withstand four more years of the same. I would be delighted by constructive suggestions by Republicans who have something to offer other than tax cuts to the wealthy that drain our treasury or spending cuts to hard working Americans who have suffered through no fault of their own and cuts to programs that would extend unemployment insurance and health insurance for the children of workers who've been laid off. The public has demanded change, and change is what we are going to see." This is not far from where the President ended up by late this week.

Given that the President is not fond of telling stories with antagonists--and he has been reluctant even to use active voice in pointing to "bad decisions that were made" or to specific actors whose poor judgment and decisions contributed substantially to the economic meltdown (notably the ones who are criticizing him now)--he could have offered a milder version of that story more in line with his temperament: "We are in a crisis, and the old solutions we've been hearing about for decades--that if you just cut taxes to the wealthy, cut spending to the bone, and leave people who want to work and take care of their families without jobs and health insurance, our economy will somehow magically turn itself around--have been tried and they have failed. So I have submitted to the Congress, and expect within two weeks to see passage, of an economic recovery and revitalization bill to stop the hemorrhaging of jobs and the increasing suffering of the American people. I will reach across the aisle to Republicans who want to engage in productive dialog to try to improve that bill, but I will not engage in ideological debates about failed ideas like more tax cuts to the wealthy or more record profits for Exxon topped with tax breaks. The people have spoken on those debates, and they are over."

Unfortunately, for weeks as the other side got bolder and bolder in its attacks, President Obama chose to offer neither story, and he refused to respond to the attacks from the other side until late last week. History (not to mention social psychology and neuroscience) has shown conclusively that letting attacks stand without a counterattack in the same news cycle is playing with fire for a President, which is why President Clinton's war room responded within an hour of any attack. We don't have to go back to the 1990s or even to John Kerry's failure to respond to the Swift Boat attacks in 2004 to note the relationship between failure to respond and the success of an attack. All we need to do is to go back to July of 2008, when then-candidate Obama made a brilliant overseas tour, in which he wowed our troops in the Middle East and brought out hundreds of thousands of cheering listeners for a speech in Berlin. The McCain team, taken aback (and by surprise) by Obama's remarkable ability to speak with foreign leaders, the people of other countries, and our men and women in uniform, responded immediately by branding Obama as a narcissistic, empty "celebrity" whose words they compared mockingly to Moses parting the Red Sea. Obama's team was AWOL, offering no counter-response, and his ratings in the polls ended up dropping following several days of the withering, unanswered GOP attacks and media self-flagellation (spurred by the McCain campaign's charges of bias) about whether they were too fawning over a candidate who had been accused of being too inexperienced to be a world leader and then proceeded to demonstrate his stature on the world stage in a way that was, frankly, staggering. The figure below shows how Obama's lead over McCain in July shot up from the 4 percent at which it hovered for much of the summer to 9 points at the pinnacle of his trip abroad (the Berlin speech), as Americans watched with their own eyes how the world was responding to the man who might be their next President, and then plummeted as he refused to put up his dukes when the McCain team branded his success as evidence that he was too big for his britches. (The data are from the Gallup daily tracking polls; my thanks to Rachel Wolitzky for pulling them together.)


President Obama had a brilliant first week in office, and hopefully he will regain some message control and stop the bleeding. He needs to remember what he clearly recognized the first week: that he is the person in charge. He and his fellow Democrats need to stop buying into the idea, promulgated by both the media and the Republicans (who made the exact opposite claim when the GOP had a smaller majority in the Senate and threatened the "nuclear option" if Democrats filibustered) that they need the votes of Republicans for anything (in particular, that they need 60 votes in the Senate). If one of the President's goals is to create a durable progressive realignment--which is another potential casualty of the language of bipartisanship unless handled very artfully--the more Republicans he can bring along on various bills the better. But the President doesn't have to, and never will, win the far right, and that's just about all that's left of the Republican Party in Washington. He should attend to the left and the center, because those are the people whose hearts and minds he won overwhelmingly in November.

The reality is that if 56 or 57 Senators vote for the recovery package, there is nothing that could more effectively put the Republicans back on the defensive where the President should have left them than a filibuster. All the President would need to do would be to tell the stories of some of the people from the states of the filibustering Senators who had just lost their jobs, homes, or health care as their elected representatives were obstructing passage of a recovery package and the filibuster would be over as fast as you can say "the party is over."

Drew Westen, Ph.D., is Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at Emory University, founder of Westen Strategies, and author of "The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation."