“He came to Washington with a pretty deep-seated belief in his personal power to bring people together, and I think he’s learned the hard way that the gap between red America and blue America was wider and deeper than he imagined, and the force of personality wouldn’t be enough to close the gap,” Galston said.
Bill Clinton, who ran as a centrist but governed as a progressive, had a similar awakening after Democrats suffered a massive defeat in the 1994 midterm election. He pivoted to the center after the shellacking and was able to hammer out legislative compromises on sweeping welfare reform and a balanced budget with a hostile Congress.
Though his Democrats suffered a similar setback in the 2010 election, which saw the rise of the tea party and Republicans even more opposed to the president’s policies, Obama’s style and reliance on a tight circle of advisers has changed little.
“I think he understands some of what he didn’t get right, particularly in the first two years, but I don’t think he’s done a lot to change in light of that new understanding,” Galston said.
Across history, presidents of both parties have shifted course to reflect a changing political landscape: Avowed tax foe Ronald Reagan agreed to several tax increases after his initial tax cuts sent the federal budget deficit soaring. Franklin Roosevelt took office promising to balance the federal budget but sought increased government spending as a way to boost employment, arguing that balancing the budget with so many out of work “would have been a crime against the American people.”
Obama is not immune: In December 2010, he sought to reach a deal with Republicans, angering his Democratic base by agreeing to extend the expiring Bush-era tax breaks for all income levels, even after opposing them for the richest. He’s claimed the same ground this time around, vowing not to sign legislation that extends tax cuts to the wealthiest.
Pragmatism has its risks: George H.W. Bush broke a campaign pledge not to raise taxes. It helped curb deficits but hurt him with his conservative base and contributed to his loss of the presidency. George W. Bush didn’t change course on tax cuts or the war in Iraq, though tax cuts led to greater deficits and debt and the war wounded his presidency and his party.
Obama supporters contend that Congress is more partisan and polarized than it was even a decade ago, making it even more of a challenge to reach any kind of consensus. Tea party Republicans, they note, are nearly as willing to defy their own congressional leaders as they are to oppose Obama.
Though he served in the Senate, Obama had little history with most members of Congress when he got elected. He had been in the Senate only four years – and half of that time was spent on the presidential campaign trail. Though he’s held the occasional picnic at the White House, he’s not one for schmoozing and building relationships with members of Congress, electing instead to use House Republicans in particular as a foil on the campaign trail.
With abysmal popularity ratings, Congress is a tempting target, but good government advocates question whether the approach is an effective governing strategy.
“Even people who are almost entirely uncritical of the president will say that congressional relations turned out unexpectedly to be a weak point in his presidency,” Galston said.