Changing Washington Proves Harder Than Expected
By Dan Balz
When he began his campaign for the White House two years ago, President Obama acknowledged that he had not been in Washington very long, but at least long enough to know it needed to change. At his press conference Wednesday night marking his 100th day in office, Obama showed how Washington has begun to change him.
The Obama who appeared before the press in the East Room was no less confident than the candidate who decided to take one half of the best brand in the Democratic Party -- Hillary Rodham Clinton. From Chrysler to Pakistan, Obama expressed confidence that he could handle the toughest problems thrown his way.
But on one area, he admitted frustration in not making more progress. The political culture of Washington, he said, has been harder to crack apart than he had imagined. He said he hasn't given up, but he certainly seems to have redefined the terms by which he will judge success. Bipartisanship, as his top advisers have been saying lately, will no longer be defined by how many Republican votes he gets for his programs.
That answer came on the day he welcomed Sen. Arlen Specter into the Democratic Party, a potential 60th -- and therefore filibuster-killing -- vote for a party that eight years ago was jumping for joy over the party switch by Vermont's Jim Jeffords that gave them a one-vote majority by which to counter then-President George W. Bush.
Now, with Specter in tow and Al Franken likely to join the Democrats soon, Obama commands majorities that no president since Lyndon B. Johnson has enjoyed. He is set, if he chooses, to trample the opposition on Capitol Hill, assuming he can hold his own forces together on critical votes.
"I am under no illusions that suddenly I'm going to have a rubber-stamp Senate," Obama said when asked the potential for one-party rule. "I've got Democrats who don't agree with me on everything, and that's how it should be." One of those Democrats is the newest: on the same day he was welcomed at the White House by the president and Vice President Biden, Specter voted against the president's budget.
Obama said he respects the co-equal status of Congress, knows that regional as well as political differences create divisions he will have to overcome on legislation and insisted that his efforts to reach out to Republicans have been genuine. But he added, "I can't sort of define bipartisanship as simply being willing to accept certain theories of theirs that we tried for eight years and didn't work and the American people voted to change."
He went on to say that, if bipartisanship is defined as "a situation in which basically, wherever there are philosophical differences, I have to simply go along with ideas that have been rejected by the American people in a historic election, you know, we're probably not going to make progress."
Obama cited three areas of possible cross-party cooperation. The first was health care. He acknowledged a significant gulf with Republicans on the question of whether health care reform should include the offering of a public insurance plan, but said there were other important elements of health care reform, such as reducing the costs of medical malpractice insurance where he and Republicans might agree.
"If I'm taking some of your ideas and giving you credit for good ideas, the fact that you didn't get 100 percent can't be a reason every single time to oppose my position," he said.
The other areas of potential cooperation, he said, are immigration and defense procurement. He singled out his 2008 rival, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, on both. McCain, he said, "has the right position" on immigration and added, "I would love to partner with him" in finally winning passage of a comprehensive immigration reform.
Immigration reform, which eluded Bush because he couldn't bring enough conservatives in his own party along, might well be ripe for bipartisan approval, now that the Democratic ranks have been enhanced. How many other Republicans McCain could attract--assuming he is willing to work with Obama--is an open question, but perhaps enough to get the bill passed.
The president also noted that McCain is working with Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) on defense procurement reform, which the White House hopes to finish up soon.
Later in the press conference, Jeff Zeleny of the New York Times, asked Obama to reflect on his 100 days by talking about what has surprised him most, enchanted him most, humbled him most and troubled him most. When he got to what troubles him, he returned to the hard nut of Washington's culture.
He said he was "less troubled, but, you know, sobered by the fact that change in Washington comes slow. That there is still a certain quotient of political posturing and bickering that takes place even when we're in the middle of really big crises."
Obama said he wished there could be a time-out on political game-playing, at least until next year. "That hasn't happened as much as I would have liked," he said.
After 100 days, Obama has recalibrated his message from the campaign. Breaking from the Bush administration is the real change he intends to deliver. If he can change the political culture along with it, that's fine too. But he left no doubt Wednesday night about his real goals. While he still hopes to find areas of common ground, he said, "The majority will probably be determinative when it comes to resolving just hard, core differences that we can't resolve."
Obama added one final thought designed to prod Republicans to find some areas where they can find compromise with the White House and the Democrats. He pointed to his own positive approval ratings and implicitly pointed to surveys that show the public lacking confidence in the Republican Party. "Simply opposing our approach on every front is probably not a good political strategy," he said.
Whether any of that will bring about a change in the cooperative relationship is doubtful, given the size of the Democratic majorities and the conclusion of Republicans that, in the domestic arena at least, they are prepared to take their chances in solid opposition. What Obama showed Wednesday night is that he is prepared to move ahead on those terms and take his chances with the voters in 2010 and 2012.
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