Washington Matters


Latest Poll Holds Warning for Obama


At first glance, this week's Washington Post/ABC poll is filled with good news for President Obama. His approval rating is still high -- a steady two-thirds. The number of people who think the country is on the right track is four times what it was in January. And almost no one blames Obama for the economic mess we're in. Even the first lady's ratings have climbed dramatically.

But lurking in the details are hints of trouble on a number of fronts that can't be ignored.

The worst news is that bipartisanship is all but dead. The poll shows the most partisan divide at this point in a new presidency since 1953, when pollsters first started keeping records. Overall, 66% approve of the job Obama is doing and only 29% disapprove, but only a quarter of Republicans do so, compared to 95% of Democrats. His support among independents has fallen six points, but is still a very respectable 61%. Part of the slippage concerns the deficit -- only 45% of independents approve of Obama's budget, while 50% disapprove. (Complete results.)

The partisan split extends to the economic outlook, with the partisan divide now bigger than it was right after Bill Clinton took office and decided to increase taxes on high-income Americans. The percentage of Democrats who think the economy is getting better is double the percentage of Republicans who feel that way. Democrats are three times more likely than Republicans to think the country is now on the right track.

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All this is both a result and a harbinger of the effort (to the extent there is one) to be more bipartisan. Obama has all but abandoned substantive moves to include Republican ideas. He still says he welcomes them but when his budget director was asked to name those he liked, he couldn't name a single one. The change came after the GOP stood almost united against the stimulus, leading Obama to say that while he was eager for bipartisanship, he wouldn't let the GOP treat him like a sap. The problem is that while it's all well and good to talk of bipartisan cooperation, neither Republicans nor Democrats are truly willing to compromise on anything important. As a result, they define bipartisanship as the other guy giving in. Democrats will only compromise when they need GOP votes and Republicans won't compromise because they'd rather appeal to the conservatives that elected them.

This is now playing out big time in the fight over whether to include reconciliation in the budget resolution. Reconciliation is one of those arcane procedural issues that few outside of Washington understand but that makes a world of difference. Suffice it to say that it means Democrats can pass legislation with 51 votes rather than 60 -- i.e. they can pass big policy changes without even talking to the GOP. They will act this week to preserve the option to approve sweeping changes in health care using this tactic. They insist this is a last resort -- that they'll only use it if Republicans refuse to work with them on a broadly based bill, but the mere threat may make it impossible for Republicans to give in on any disputes.

No one illustrates this move away from bipartisanship more than Judd Gregg, the Republican senator from New Hampshire, who agreed to be Obama's Commerce secretary and then decided he couldn't do it. He's now become the biggest critic of Obama's budget, arguing that his plan would bankrupt the nation. He's also the biggest critic of reconciliation, insisting it amounts to a declaration of war against the minority.

Democrats are quick to point out that Gregg was far less vocal about Bush's budget deficits. And they replay with glee his comments eight years ago in which he said there was nothing wrong with using reconciliation when Republicans relied on it to pass Bush's signature tax cuts. It's only now that the shoe is on the other foot, Democrats say, that Gregg has seen the light

What this all adds up to is hard to say -- other than that bipartisanship is as good as dead. John Dickerson, in an article yesterday on Slate, says Obama's promise of a post-partisanship era is almost completely gone. Unanswered is whether that was inevitable -- and even whether that's a bad thing.

 




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