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Obama Is Partisan. So What?

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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How partisan is President Barack Obama? Exactly as partisan as just about everyone in Washington these days. Which is quite a bit.

The latest iteration of this discussion began after MSNBC host Joe Scarborough said this about the president yesterday:

The many critics of this claim included Princeton historian Kevin M. Kruse, who called Obama the “least partisan president” of the “modern era.”

If I had to choose sides, I'd go with Scarborough. Let’s look at Kruse’s evidence. 

The professor says: “Obama's first years in office showed bipartisan outreach we have not seen in the modern era before.” True, Obama actively sought Republican support for his agenda, and was willing to compromise on details to get it. But George W. Bush also sought bipartisan support for his goals, working with Democrats on No Child Left Behind, for example, and offering to negotiate aspects of his tax cut. Bill Clinton worked with Republicans on the overhaul of welfare, and George H.W. Bush signed the bipartisan Americans With Disabilities Act. It's hard to see how Obama is doing more.  

Kruse goes on to argue that the president deserves more credit for naming two Republican holdovers from the Bush administration to his original cabinet -- Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood. Fair enough. But the Obama White House -- that is, the Executive Office of the President -- has included only those affiliated with his own party.

By this standard, Richard Nixon was perhaps the least partisan modern president. Henry Kissinger, his national security adviser, was a Democrat at that time, and so was Daniel Patrick Moynihan, an important domestic-policy adviser in Nixon’s first term. In addition, many of Nixon’s closest aides -- including Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman -- were purely Nixon people, with little or no previous experience as Republicans.

This kind of separation is much rarer today. Even the advisers whom we think of as having strong personal ties to the president, such as Karl Rove for George W. Bush or David Axelrod for Obama, have mostly had long careers in party politics separate from their association with the president. That made Bush and Obama party politicians, while Nixon was much less tied to his party -- as were other presidents of his era.

Kruse also identified Obama's proposals as bipartisan.  That isn't really the case. For example, Kruse repeats the argument that Obama's health-care plan was modeled on Mitt Romney's in Massachusetts. But, as Scott Lemieux frequently points out, Romney was hardly the initiator of the Massachusetts plan. His position as governor allowed him to negotiate over it, but a very liberal Democratic legislature working with U.S. Senator Ted Kennedy was the prime mover there. George W. Bush’s support for adding prescription-drug coverage to Medicare surely had more bipartisan credibility than Obama’s Affordable Care Act. Mainly, Obama has pushed for the Democratic agenda. 

As political scientist Richard Skinner reminds us, we have had a “partisan presidency” since the Ronald Reagan era. Obama fits in comfortably within that mold.

Of course, partisan presidents still must react to their political context, and that may give them more or fewer incentives to work with the other party. Obama benefited from large majorities in both the House and Senate in his first two years in office and thus had less reason to reach out then. It seemed appropriate that he and other Democrats reacted to big Democratic victories by passing Democratic priorities. But Obama certainly remained quite partisan after Republicans regained Congress -- as George W. Bush did when faced with divided government.  

What Kruse gets right is that Obama has faced an extraordinarily partisan opposition party in Congress that has blocked anything he proposed. This, too, has affected the president's options.  If a Republican president had negotiated the Iran deal, it's likely it would have been fairly popular among congressional Republicans.

So while it may be a stretch to call Obama most partisan of recent presidents, he is at least as partisan as any of them. That says nothing about him -- it's just the structure of U.S. politics now.

  1. I'm including John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson here. In my research, Jimmy Carter was the turning point. While his "Georgia mafia" White House was filled with people with personal ties to him, they were also more tied to the Democratic Party than Nixon's staff had been to the Republicans. Reagan's White House was even more party-connected, and from George H.W. Bush through Obama party ties dominate.

  2. Was Bill Clinton's "triangulation" less partisan? I don't interpret it that way; it was more of a public-relations gambit and negotiation tactic appropriate to the time than it was a real de-escalation of partisanship. 

  3. Yes, a conservative Republican could have reached a similar agreement. Sure: conservative Republicans have always been extremely suspicious of international agreements. But Ronald Reagan made deals with the Soviet Union, and conservatives in Congress mostly went along.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net