The conventional wisdom holds that President Obama pursued a partisan agenda in his first two years, before the 2010 midterms forced him to reach out to Republicans. For those following events closely during that time, the observation has never made much sense.
Health care reform, for example, was passed exclusively with Democratic votes in both chambers, but to put it mildly, the president did everything imaginable to find GOP support, practically pleading with Republicans like Olympia Snowe, Susan Collins, and Chuck Grassley to work with him on a deal. He never found any takers.
With this in mind, Dave Weigel recently read Snowe’s new book, which sheds some interesting light on Obama all but begging the Maine Republican to do the right thing on health care, with the president talking to Snowe over the phone “more than a dozen times,” meeting with her in person eight times. The two had their final meeting five days before the Senate’s cloture vote, in 2009. From the book:
Throughout the health reform debate, the President worked with me in good faith, and I believed he was doing so now. By this point, however, I realized that the legislation had essentially been pre-ordained…. “Mr. President,” I responded, “I sincerely appreciate your offer. But if I couldn’t secure changes in the bill now, it’s not going to happen when I’m the only Republican on that conference with all the Democratic leaders.”
Now, if Beltway pundits are to be believed, Obama has failed miserably to generate Republican support for his agenda because (a) he doesn’t schmooze enough; (b) he doesn’t reach out enough; and (c) he’s too partisan.
I’ve never fully understood why anyone would believe this critique – Republican leaders have admitted many times that they’ve refused to compromise with the White House, even when they agree with the president – but shouldn’t Snowe’s anecdote bring this debate to a close?
According to the political establishment, Obama chose to pursue a partisan health care bill because he simply expects lawmakers to see reason and could afford to blow off his GOP rivals. According to Snowe, Obama had 20 conversations with this one senator – from the opposition party – practically begging her to vote for a bill she’d already supported in committee. (She ultimately refused, ignoring the presidential appeals.)
I don’t imagine I’ll ever persuade the Beltway establishment of this, but when it comes to understanding the nature of contemporary gridlock, perhaps the scope of Obama’s outreach isn’t really the problem.