No matter how much politicians say they want to get along, a dominant feature of the political landscape in Washington is still the blame game. And it will intensify next month when congressional Democrats and Republicans return from their summer break to do battle on healthcare, the economy, climate change, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The rancorous atmosphere is already spreading. Throughout August, all sides have been trying to point the finger at their opponents for the recession, the federal deficit, and the seemingly endless obstacles on Capitol Hill to healthcare legislation, which is President Obama's top domestic priority.
[See photos of anger at town hall meetings.]
Everyone seems to feel aggrieved, generating a toxic brew of distrust. Even the normally dispassionate Obama turned personal in a speech in Grand Junction, Colo., . "I just lost my grandmother last year," the president said. "I know what it's like to watch somebody you love, who's aging, deteriorate and have to struggle with that." (Obama's 86-year-old grandmother, Madelyn Payne Dunham, died after a long illness on November 2, two days before he won the presidential election.) Obama disputed the idea spread by opponents "that somehow I ran for public office or members of Congress are in this so they can go around pulling the plug on Grandma. When you start making arguments like that, that's simply dishonest--especially when I hear the argument coming from members of Congress in the other party who, turns out, sponsored similar provisions."
Deepening Obama's problem are increasing anger and frustration among his party's liberals over signals from the administration that it may not be as solidly committed to a public insurance option as the left had thought. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters last week that a government-run healthcare option would "keep insurance companies honest and increase competition." And leaders of the 83-member Congressional Progressive Caucus sent a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius arguing that "to take the public option off the table would be a grave error." Some liberals are threatening to withhold support for any health insurance bill that doesn't include that option.
[See photos of Obama.]
On the other side, Republicans are upset that Obama keeps blaming his predecessor, George W. Bush, for the nation's woes. Obama says that when he took over in January, the economy was already in the ditch. But a key GOP strategist says perceptions are changing. The strategist, who advises many congressional Republicans, says Obama's job approval has declined recently because Americans, more and more, believe that the nation's major problems, from the recession and unemployment to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, can no longer be blamed on Bush. "Obama is increasingly being held accountable," says the strategist.
Attempting to exploit that trend, Republican leaders have been blasting Obama and Democrats in Congress for making things worse. Most pointedly, they accuse them of running the economy deeper into a hole with vast spending programs, initiating a stimulus package that hasn't ended the recession and hasn't lowered the unemployment rate, and creating trillions of dollars in new debt.
In a recent memo to Republican activists, House GOP leader John Boehner of Ohio urged party members to adopt "a culture of entrepreneurial insurgency" to spread doubts about Obama on the healthcare overhaul, the economy, and other issues. The Republican National Committee jumped into the fray with its own advertising campaign making similar points.
Some argue that the partisans on both sides are off base. Americans favor a middle ground, says Rutgers political scientist Ross Baker. The way to succeed in revamping healthcare is "incremental," Baker says. "There won't be a total restructuring of healthcare. Things don't happen that way."
There is a real danger here for the Washington establishment. If voters conclude that it's business as usual--gridlock, created for partisan purposes, and a refusal or inability to do the public's business--they will turn against those in office. That could cause the defeat of significant numbers of incumbents in the midterm elections next year, fuel the rise of a third party or an independent candidate for president, and add to the cynicism about Washington's ability to get things done.