President Barack Obama’s urgent call on Tuesday for fundamental changes in the nation’s political system — coupled with the angry tone of the Republican presidential primary campaign — represents grim evidence that the bitter partisanship that has defined his tenure has reached deep into American democracy.
Obama devoted the closing words of his final State of the Union address to a plea to “fix our politics” and allow the public and elected officials to engage in “rational, constructive debates.”
But who is really responsible for the nasty turn in civic life? Democrats and Republicans say both sides are.
“I think there’s probably a lot of us to blame,” Denis McDonough, the White House chief of staff, said Wednesday at a breakfast with reporters. “It’s the structure of our campaigns, the structure of our districts, what’s happening in terms of news media, that is to say that you can select your news media the same way that you select your neighborhood or your church.”
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”You can end up in an echo chamber unless you aggressively work to get out of that,” McDonough said.
Just as Obama on Tuesday acknowledged his own failure in curbing the rancor and distrust between the two parties after entering office with a pledge to do just that, top officials on both sides of the political divide acknowledged culpability in fostering the hostile climate that has left many Americans turned off and cynical about politics even as the country prepares to choose Obama’s successor.
In the Republican response to the president, Nikki Haley, the governor of South Carolina, also conceded that Republicans must try not to point the finger only at Democrats.
“We need to be honest with each other, and with ourselves,” she said. “While Democrats in Washington bear much responsibility for the problems facing America today, they do not bear it alone. There is more than enough blame to go around.
“We as Republicans need to own that truth. We need to recognize our contributions to the erosion of the public trust in America’s leadership. We need to accept that we’ve played a role in how and why our government is broken.”
The two parties have spent much of the Obama era trying to make the other take responsibility for the dysfunction of the government, but both have played roles.
Despite Obama’s lofty campaign rhetoric about changing the tone in Washington, it was over almost before it began. Faced with a financial system in tatters, he developed an economic stimulus package and pushed it through almost entirely with Democratic votes.
Congressional Republicans, stunned by Obama’s victory in 2008 and the ability of Democrats to win a supermajority in the Senate, quickly discovered they could reap political benefit from united opposition to the president, propelling Republicans to control of the House in 2010 and ultimately control of the Senate in 2014. The Republican rise in the House was lifted by the gerrymandering that Obama assailed Tuesday with his observation that an end is needed in a system where “politicians can pick their voters, and not the other way around.”
Obama, after being able to force through an aggressive economic and social agenda in his first two years in office, quickly grew frustrated with Republican resistance and engaged in a concerted campaign to go around lawmakers. His series of executive actions on health care, immigration and the environment drove Republicans into a frenzy of opposition and vitriol, and as divisions grew, Obama was increasingly defiant about his prerogative to act where Congress would not.
The nuts-and-bolts steps that Obama advocated Tuesday — nonpartisan redistricting, campaign finance changes, rules to ease voting rather than make it more difficult — are often discussed but gain little traction because of the political advantages one side or the other sees in maintaining the current system. It is a real question whether this time will be any different, though Obama pledged to press his case both in his final year and when he is out of office.
At the same time, the president has no plans during his final year in office to pull back on his aggressive use of unilateral action to skirt congressional gridlock and accomplish his objectives, promising still more fodder for the cycle of division and blame he decried in Tuesday’s speech.
“We'll do audacious executive action throughout the course of the year — I’m confident about that,” McDonough said, adding that Obama had told his staff that the central question he will continually ask himself all year as he is deciding whether to act on his priorities is “Why not?”
And as soon as Tuesday night’s speech concluded, Republicans in Congress began packing up for a trip to Baltimore for a joint House-Senate retreat where they will be plotting an opposition agenda to the president for the year.