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Analysts: Prospects For US Bipartisanship In 2010 Uncertain

U.S. President Obama renews effort to reach out to opposition Republicans, but upcoming 2010 congressional elections may favor political calculations over cooperation

As he begins his second year in office, President Barack Obama is renewing his effort to reach out to opposition Republicans, despite the fact that 2010 is a congressional election year in the United States.

After his election in 2008, Mr. Obama promised to try to change the partisan tone in Washington. After a politically polarizing first year in office, the president renewed a challenge in his recent State of the Union Address for both major political parties to work together, especially opposition Republicans.

"Just saying no to everything may be good short-term politics, but it is not leadership. We were sent here to serve our citizens, not our ambitions," Mr. Obama said.

A few days later, the president took the unusual step of answering questions from House Republicans who complained that Democratic congressional leaders routinely dismiss their ideas and proposals.

Among them was Republican Congressman Tom Price of Georgia.

"What should we tell our constituents who know that Republicans have offered positive solutions to the challenges that Americans face, and yet continue to hear out of the administration that we have offered nothing?" Price asked.

The president said he would do what he could to improve the prospects for bipartisan cooperation in Congress.

"We have to think about tone. It is not just on your side, by the way. It is on our side as well. This is part of what has happened in our politics where we demonize the other side so much that when it comes to actually getting things done, it becomes tough to do," Mr. Obama said.

Public-opinion polls show most Americans would like to see more cooperation between the two parties in Washington. But finding areas of common ground has proven to be difficult.

House Republican leader Congressman John Boehner of Ohio appeared on NBC's 'Meet the Press' program.

"Republicans have an obligation to stand on principle and to fight these proposals, but at the same time, to offer better solutions," Boehner said.

The polarized nature of U.S. politics has been evolving for decades, but reached a crescendo in the 1990's when Republicans took control of Congress during then President Bill Clinton's second year in office.

Republicans are poised to gain congressional seats in the November midterm elections, and Historian Allan Lichtman says that makes it less likely that many Republicans will be in a mood to cooperate with the Obama White House.

"That is precisely the strategy that Republicans are following today. We will return to power by pasting as many big defeats as we can on the president of the United States. And with the victory of Scott Brown [in Massachusetts], the Republican who stunningly took over the seat held by the liberal conscience, Ted Kennedy, the Republicans believe that their strategy of implacable opposition to what Obama wants to do is succeeding," Lichtman said.

Even as the president extends an uncertain olive branch to the opposition, he is also mindful that his own liberal Democratic base needs some reassurance.

Elizabeth Sherman is a professor of political science at American University in Washington.

"I think that he is basically saying we are not giving up, we are not throwing in the towel. Let us lock arms and march forward. I think he is saying that not everybody is going to get what they want," Sherman said.

In fact, many liberals believe the president has already shown too much of an inclination to give in to conservative Democrats and moderate Republicans.

David Sanger is Chief Washington correspondent for the New York Times.

"I think that Barack Obama's biggest problem in his first year was that expectations were set this high and the problems were even higher. And I think that many of his deepest supporters are disappointed that he seems to have moved more to the middle in a very pragmatic way to address those problems instead of bringing about the kind of change that I think they imagined," Sanger said.

Historian Allan Lichtman says the bipartisan overtures are likely to fade as the November congressional election draws near.

"Republicans have two choices. They can work with [Obama] or they can continue to be simply naysayers. And if they continue to be simply naysayers, you are going to see the president later on as the campaign approaches challenging the Republicans as a party of simply delay and obstruction," Lichtman said.

Looking ahead to the elections, Republicans appear more motivated at the moment, fueled by opposition to the president's health-care reform plan and grassroots conservative anger at government spending and deficits. Republicans lost seats in the previous two elections, in 2008 and 2006.

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    Jim Malone

    Jim Malone has served as VOA’s National correspondent covering U.S. elections and politics since 1995. Prior to that he was a VOA congressional correspondent and served as VOA’s East Africa Correspondent from 1986 to 1990. Jim began his VOA career with the English to Africa Service in 1983.