Obama's plea to 'fix our politics' has both sides looking inward

WASHINGTON • President Barack Obama's urgent call in his final State of the Union address to "fix our politics" posed a fundamental question: Who broke them in the first place?

The answer is that both sides did. A steady erosion under way for years has accelerated during Mr Obama's time in the White House and now shows itself in congressional dysfunction and campaign vitriol. The restoration project could take some time.

"I think there's probably a lot of us to blame," Mr Denis McDonough, the White House chief of staff, told reporters on Wednesday. "It's the structure of our campaigns, the structure of our districts, what's happening in terms of news media - that is to say that you can select your news media the same way you select your neighbourhood or your church."

Mr Obama, who rose to the presidency promising to transform Washington, seemed so alarmed by the political state of the nation that, in his address on Tuesday night, he said one of the few regrets of his presidency was that the political rancour had grown worse rather than better.

In fact, intense polarisation of the sort that has dominated Mr Obama's tenure is nothing new in United States history, said Professor Joanne Freeman, a Yale University historian, although she said Mr Obama's status as the first African-American president had brought a sharper edge to the discord. "It is not unique to President Obama," she said. "But the tone of it now is extra harsh and, in some cases, tinged with ugly things, including race."

President Obama promoting themes from his State of the Union address at McKinley High School in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, on Thursday. In his address on Tuesday night, he said one of the few regrets of his presidency was that the political rancour had grown worse rather than better. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

Governor Nikki Haley of South Carolina, who offered the Republican counterpoint to Mr Obama's speech, said that her party needed to accept some of the fault and that voters must resist following "the angriest voices". "We need to be honest with each other, and with ourselves," Ms Haley said. "While Democrats in Washington bear much responsibility for the problems facing America today, they do not bear it alone. There is more than enough blame to go around."

Both parties trace much of the current hostility to the bitter fight over President Ronald Reagan's nomination of Mr Robert Bork to the Supreme Court in 1987, when Democrats succeeded in defeating him and Republicans vowed revenge. Eight years later, Mr Newt Gingrich became House speaker and ushered in an era of confronta-tion and government shutdowns that culminated in the impeach-ment of President Bill Clinton.

Mr Obama's address was in some ways the culmination of his own evolution, from a hopeful first-term senator exhorting voters to resist the negative fringe of campaign commentary to a frustrated presi-dent who has essentially conceded that the forces of division now reign.

In fact, it was over almost before he entered the White House.

Congressional Republicans, stunned by his victory in 2008 and the ability of Democrats to win a supermajority in the Senate, quickly discovered that they could reap political benefit from united opposition to the President.

So when Mr Obama faced a financial system in tatters and an automobile industry on the brink of collapse in early 2009, he developed an economic stimulus package and pushed it through almost entirely with Democratic votes.

The President's arm's-length relationship with Capitol Hill throughout his tenure only deepened the sense of suspicion and animosity. Lawmakers in both parties still complain on a regular basis that the White House treats them as an afterthought in important decisions and fails to respond to their concerns.

Republicans united in opposition to Mr Obama to gain control of the House in 2010 and, ultimately, control of the Senate in 2014. Republicans are so determined not to be seen as supportive of Mr Obama that they sat silently on Tuesday as he proclaimed the United States the most powerful nation on earth - usually a sure-applause line. "It used to be a very positive thing for a member of Congress to say, 'I can work with the president of the United States'," said former Representative Vin Weber of Minnesota, a Republican strategist. "Now there's no margin for that" for a lawmaker of the opposite party. "Even if it were possible, the grassroots have become so polarised that it's now seen as a negative, even dangerous," Mr Weber said.

Mr Obama, after forcing through an aggressive economic and social agenda in his first two years in office, quickly grew frustrated with Republican resistance and engaged in a concerted campaign to go around lawmakers. His series of executive actions on healthcare, immigration and the environment drove Republicans into a frenzy of opposition. As divisions grew, the President was increasingly defiant about his prerogative to act where Congress would not.

In the process, the two parties spent much of the Obama era trying to make the other responsible for the sorry state of political relations and gridlock. But both have contributed, as the permanent battle for congressional supremacy has at times led lawmakers to put political gain ahead of national interest and to oppose Bills they actually support.

"To have the President... talk about it in a State of the Union message illustrated that, without romanticising the past, our politics is fundamentally changed from what it was, and in very disturbing ways," Mr Weber said. "We haven't yet fully figured out, as the political class, what exactly is the source of this."

As room for compromise disappeared, the public grew grimmer in its assessment as well. In 2007, as the presidency of Mr George W. Bush drew to a close, two-thirds of Americans thought the country was more politically divided than in the past, according to a poll by the Pew Research Centre. With Mr Obama's election, that number dropped 20 percentage points, to 46 per cent, but it has risen steadily throughout his tenure. The latest survey, conducted last autumn, found 79 per cent saying the country was more polarised than it had been before.

Seeking a solution, Mr Obama on Tuesday advocated a series of nuts-and-bolts changes, along with his grander call for more civic engagement. But the steps he outlined - non-partisan redistricting, campaign finance changes, rules to ease voting - are the kind that both sides talk about but rarely act on because of the political advantages one side or the other sees in maintaining the current system.

Republicans, who control most state legislatures, like the current system of redistricting because it allows them to draw the lines. (Democrats enjoy the same advantage in states where they have the upper hand.)

The question is whether this time will be any different, although Mr Obama pledged to press the case in his final year and when he is out of office.

At the same time, the President has no plans to pull back on his aggressive use of unilateral action to skirt Congress and accomplish his objectives, promising still more fodder for the cycle of division and blame he assailed in Tuesday's speech.

Nor will Republicans shy from opposing such actions. Hours after Mr Obama finished speaking, the House voted to nullify a set of water regulations he had issued, denouncing what they called another power grab. After that vote, they headed to Baltimore for a joint House-Senate retreat to plot an aggressive opposition agenda for 2016.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 16, 2016, with the headline 'Obama's plea to 'fix our politics' has both sides looking inward'. Print Edition | Subscribe