Barack Obama, Post-Partisan, Meets Washington Gridlock
On a frigid January evening in 2009, a week before his Inauguration, Barack Obama had dinner at the home of George Will, the Washington Post columnist, who had assembled a number of right-leaning journalists to meet the President-elect. Accepting such an invitation was a gesture on Obama’s part that signalled his desire to project an image of himself as a post-ideological politician, a Chicago Democrat eager to forge alliances with conservative Republicans on Capitol Hill. That week, Obama was still working on an Inaugural Address that would call for “an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics.”
Obama sprang coatless from his limousine and headed up the steps of Will’s yellow clapboard house. He was greeted by Will, Michael Barone, David Brooks, Charles Krauthammer, William Kristol, Lawrence Kudlow, Rich Lowry, and Peggy Noonan. They were Reaganites all, yet some had paid tribute to Obama during the campaign. Lowry, who is the editor of the National Review, called Obama “the only presidential candidate from either party about whom there is a palpable excitement.” Krauthammer, an intellectual and ornery voice on Fox News and in the pages of the Washington Post, had written that Obama would be “a president with the political intelligence of a Bill Clinton harnessed to the steely self-discipline of a Vladimir Putin,” who would “bestride the political stage as largely as did Reagan.” And Kristol, the editor of the Weekly Standard and a former aide to Dan Quayle, wrote, “I look forward to Obama’s inauguration with a surprising degree of hope and good cheer.”
Over dinner, Obama searched for points of common ground. He noted that he and Kudlow agreed on a business-investment tax cut. “He loves to deal with both sides of the issue,” Kudlow later wrote. “He revels in the back and forth. And he wants to keep the dialogue going with conservatives.” Obama’s view, shared with many people at the time, was that professional pundits were wrong about American politics. It was a myth, he said, that the two political parties were impossibly divided on the big issues confronting America. The gap was surmountable. Compared with some other Western countries, where Communists and far-right parties sit in the same parliament, the gulf between Democrats and Republicans was narrow.
Obama’s homily about conciliation reflected an essential component of his temperament and his view of politics. In his mid-twenties, he won the presidency of the Harvard Law Review because he was the only candidate who was trusted by both the conservative and the liberal blocs on the editorial staff. As a state senator in Springfield, when Obama represented Hyde Park-Kenwood, one of the most liberal districts in Illinois, he kept his distance from the most left-wing senators from Chicago and socialized over games of poker and golf with moderate downstate Democrats and Republicans. In 1998, after helping to pass a campaign-finance bill in the Illinois Senate, he boasted in his community paper, the Hyde Park Herald, that “the process was truly bipartisan from the start.”
A few years later, Obama ran for the U.S. Senate and criticized “the pundits and the prognosticators” who like to divide the country into red states and blue states. He made a speech against the invasion of Iraq but alarmed some in the distinctly left-wing audience by pointing out that he was not a pacifist, and that he opposed only “dumb wars.” At the 2004 Democratic Convention, in Boston, Obama delivered a retooled version of the stump speech about ideological comity—“There is not a liberal America and a conservative America; there is the United States of America!”—and became a national political star.