Barack Obama’s recent bipartisan charm offensive--dinner with columnists like Bill Kristol, toasting John McCain at a fancy dinner--may be striking, and a little titillating in its audacity. But it’s actually nothing new. Within days of his inauguration in 2001, George W. Bush launched a similar offensive of his own. Although the new president had emerged from a bitterly fought Florida recount battle, with some Democrats doubting his very legitimacy, he quickly reached across the aisle and pledged to work with the opposition. In his first days, Bush invited dozens of Democratic congressmen and senators to the White House, including that bane of conservatives, Ted Kennedy, whom he buttered up like a baked potato. Kennedy later told reporters that, while he and Bush had some specific disagreements, “I can't emphasize enough the other areas where the President was reaching out.” An aide to then-House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt said of the president to Time: “You can't help but like him.” Bush even held an early high-profile meeting with his former mortal foe, John McCain. Sound familiar?
We all know how that charm offensive turned out. Kennedy spent months working with Bush to pass the No Child Left Behind education reform bill--and then spent the next few years denouncing Bush for breaking his promises about funding the new law. Gephardt would conclude that Bush had been a “miserable failure” and run against him in 2004. Other Democrats who worked with Bush in the coming months-- like Senators Mary Landrieu and Max Cleland, who supported his tax cut and his push for invading Iraq--were rewarded with vicious GOP assaults on their seats. Ultimately, Bush was one of the most partisan and divisive presidents ever.
For a new president, making nice with the opposition comes at little cost. You schmooze a columnist, bestow a senator with a charming nickname--what’s the harm? The worst that happens is your chief of staff generously discloses his private email address to so many charmees that he can’t keep up with his Inbox. (Every day seems to bring a new story about Rahm Emanuel’s BlackBerrying with the likes of Lindsay Graham or Eric Cantor.) Which is why early indications of cross-party cooperation must be viewed skeptically. The question is in the follow through. In hindsight, it seems clear that Bush was happy to pick off a handful of Democrats to pass key agenda items, like education reform and his tax cuts, but had no real interest in adopting substantive elements of the Democrats’ agenda.
Will Obama be any different? His rhetoric certainly indicates so. But then George W. Bush, you’ll recall, largely based his candidacy on a pledge to be “a uniter, not a divider.” Certainly key people around Obama, notably including Emanuel and Democratic leaders in Congress like Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi, have spent years perfecting the art of partisan kickboxing, and people simply don’t change their instincts overnight.
Circumstances may dictate the answer. Right now, Obama’s sky-high approval ratings make it easy to charm the opposition. Columnists and congressmen want to be seen in his orbit, to bask in his glow. The starry-eyed left has shown a surprising tolerance for his centrism, allowing Obama, for instance, to propose big business tax cuts in his stimulus package with minimal blowback from his supporters. (In fact, it was Congressional Democrats who complained loudest about the stimulus tax breaks.) Obama has the luxury of aiming to win as many as 80 Senate votes for his stimulus plan--thereby insulating himself from some political fallout if it fails to goose the economy.
But that luxury surely won’t last forever. High approval ratings are made to fall. Ask the first George Bush about his post-Gulf War boomlet, which was immediately followed by recession and electoral defeat. Or ask W about the distance between the smoldering pile at Ground Zero and the flood waters of the Lower Ninth Ward. And a president doesn’t have to be unpopular to engender tough opposition. (Even with Bill Clinton’s approval ratings in the 60 percent range during the late 1990s, Congressional Republicans fiercely attacked him.)
It may be that Obama has in fact suspended the rules of partisan politics and found a way to govern with the support of 80 percent congressional majorities. More likely, he will find himself at loggerheads with a revitalized GOP. And given his determination to achieve big progressive goals anathema to the right, like near-universal health care and new regulations to contain carbon emissions, Obama seems far more likely to sacrifice the principle of bipartisanship than his core policy principles. Which is why his GOP charm offensive may not wind up so different from George W. Bush’s--even if, then as now, the opposition can’t help but like its new president.
Michael Crowley is a senior editor at The New Republic.