As President Obama moves with surprising forcefulness to implement elements of his second-term agenda — including gun control, immigration, and taxes — it's worth remembering just how scattered and lost his administration appeared to be for long stretches of his first term. Inside Obama's Presidency, a new documentary from PBS Frontline (watch Chapter 1 below, or view the entire film here), offers a useful overview of the challenges that nearly overwhelmed the young president, who had ridden to power on a message of bipartisan healing.
The overarching theme of the documentary is Obama's repeated attempts to make good on his campaign promise to find common ground. The film centers on three prominent episodes, starting with the most urgent: An $800 billion stimulus package to prevent the economy from collapsing in early 2009. Obama stuffed the legislation with tax breaks in order to appeal to the GOP, and, to symbolize his good faith, rushed to Capitol Hill to sell the package to congressional Republicans. But GOP leaders had already developed a strategy of unified and total opposition to Obama's stimulus. The stimulus package passed with zero Republican support in the House, and has long since been characterized by many conservatives as a feckless waste of money that bloated the deficit.
The second episode revolves around health care, which also began as a bipartisan effort. Obama was so eager to have a bipartisan imprimatur on the legislation — or even a single Republican senator on board — that he allowed it to wallow for months in committees. As time dragged on, the legislative process got messier, the Tea Party movement gained momentum, and public opinion swung against the president. Conservatives won the PR war and successfully characterized ObamaCare as a massive federal overreach. The law passed without a single Republican vote, and Democrats lost the House in a historic sweep in the 2010 elections.
Obama's third attempt to make a bipartisan breakthrough came during the debt ceiling fight of 2011. He offered Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) significant cuts to entitlement programs in exchange for increased tax revenue, a deal now known as the Grand Bargain. Boehner was unable to convince his caucus to go along, and the deal unraveled at the last minute amidst finger-pointing from both sides. Congress reached a compromise to punt the issue until after the presidential election — which is what became the fiscal cliff.
Conservatives, of course, will dispute Frontline's version of events. Republicans have said that Obama never seriously considered GOP proposals for the stimulus, and that he blindsided Boehner by "moving the goalposts" during the Grand Bargain talks. They have also criticized Democrats for ramming health care reform through Congress using a budgetary process known as reconciliation.
Regardless, Obama reportedly felt like he had been burned. And his re-election campaign focused far more on the two parties' differences than their commonalities. He continued to call for bipartisanship, but the message had the smell of leftovers. The main thrust of his campaign was to argue that Mitt Rommey, as well as the GOP as a whole, was out of touch with the American mainstream.
It worked. While some believe Obama won by deftly using negative advertising to paint Romney as a heartless tycoon, polls suggest that Obama was victorious because a majority of Americans sided with him on issues of abortion, immigration, gay marriage, the auto bailout, foreign policy, Medicare, and, most importantly, the economic direction of the country.
Obama's return to governance has largely been an extension of the campaign. Instead of meeting Republicans halfway before negotiations begin, he has simply put his stance against theirs, then appealed to public opinion. The strategy has already borne fruit: Congress passed a tax increase on the wealthiest Americans over strong House GOP objections; polls show that a majority of Americans agree with Obama's position on the debt ceiling fight, causing some Republicans to abandon the party line; and a new CBS/New York Times poll shows that 92 percent of Americans favor universal background checks on gun purchases, one of Obama's main proposals to strengthen gun control.
The White House has not made specific proposals for immigration reform, but Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), the GOP's point man on the issue, has won conservative praise for suggesting proposals that are nearly identical to Obama's campaign promises. And on some issues, such as an aid package for victims of Hurricane Sandy, Obama hardly had to do any work himself: Public outrage was so intense that the bill passed, once again, over the objections of the majority of House Republicans.
Expect more of the same in Obama's second term. Some Obama supporters may mourn the fact that his promise of bipartisanship has fallen flat. And polls consistently show that a strong majority of Americans want both parties to work together to solve the country's problems. But compromise is not always a virtue in itself, especially in cases when it flouts the popular will. In other words, in taking a more confrontational stance, Obama is not merely acknowledging that he was naive in thinking his presidency would usher in a new era of bipartisan comity — it seems he now believes that he diagnosed the problem incorrectly to begin with. Indeed, the way Obama is acting, you would think the president is convinced that what ails government is not a lack of bipartisanship: It is the Republican Party itself.