Conflict Still Plagues Washington On Obama's Second Inauguration

Jan 17, 2013
Originally published on January 17, 2013 6:10 pm
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Gun control is just one of the issues where President Obama faces stiff opposition in Congress. When he was sworn in four years ago, Mr. Obama celebrated, saying, Americans had chosen unity of purpose over conflict and discord. But as NPR's Scott Horsley reports, the president will begin his second term with conflict and discord still very much the rule in Washington.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: President Obama first made his name in national politics with his 2004 appeal to bridge the divide between red America and blue America. He renewed that promise last summer at a campaign rally in Cleveland.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I will work with anyone of any party who believes that we're in this together, who believes that we rise or fall as one nation and as one people.

HORSLEY: Irma McQueen, who is in the audience that day, observed that Mr. Obama hadn't found many Republican takers for that offer during his first four years in the White House.

IRMA MCQUEEN: I think the Republicans, some of them, whatever he says, they will say the opposite just because of who he is.

HORSLEY: Jane Arrington, who was also there, agreed, but she still held out hope.

JANE ARRINGTON: Maybe somebody will get wise and say: OK, we're all Americans. We don't want our country to go down into nothing. And maybe they'll start cooperating with him.

HORSLEY: That was the president's message that day as well. He told voters the November election was their opportunity to end the political paralysis in Washington.

OBAMA: The only thing that can break the stalemate is you.


HORSLEY: Mr. Obama went on to win Ohio and the national election, but Republicans won three-quarters of Ohio's congressional seats and kept their majority in the House. Last month, Mr. Obama acknowledged the stalemate has not broken yet.

OBAMA: I'm often reminded when I speak to the Republican leadership that the majority of their caucus' membership come from districts that I lost.

HORSLEY: Political scientist Ross Baker of Rutgers University says those lawmakers and the people who elected them are not likely to find much common ground with the president, whether the issue is gun control, taxes, or the size of the federal budget.

ROSS BAKER: The thing that people who are hopeful about bipartisanship sometimes overlook is the fact that there are real political differences in the country.

HORSLEY: If anything, the geographic differences between states, counties and congressional districts appear to be growing sharper. Some of that results from partisan redistricting, with politicians drawing political boundaries to favor their own party. That helped Republicans keep control of the House even though Democrats outpolled them by more than a million votes nationwide. But voters themselves are also redrawing the map and adding to the polarization with their choices of where to live. They're voting with their feet, in a process that Bill Bishop describes in his book "The Big Sort."

BILL BISHOP: People are moving to be around others who are like themselves. When they find a place where they feel comfortable, where the shops look like they ought to be, then those people vote the same.

HORSLEY: Nationwide, Mr. Obama beat Mitt Romney by a little over 3 percentage points, a reasonably close race. But in more than half the counties in the country, the race was not close at all. One candidate or the other won by at least 20 points. Without more cross-pollination, Bishop says, political views tend to harden, making compromise more difficult.

BISHOP: Like-minded groups tend to move to the extreme while mixed groups tend to moderate. And as increasing parts of the United States become more extreme, then attitudes become more extreme.

HORSLEY: President Obama and members of Congress are sometimes criticized for not spending more time with members of the opposite party. But in that respect, they are no different than most Americans. Political scientist Baker says on issues from gun control to deficit reduction, it's a recipe for continued gridlock.

BAKER: The lines are just so firmly drawn that even the considerable powers of the president to persuade runs up against a fairly large number of people who are basically unpersuadable.

HORSLEY: This week, Mr. Obama scoffed at the suggestion he could advance his political agenda by schmoozing more with members of Congress.

OBAMA: Most people who know me know I'm a pretty friendly guy. And I like a good party.

HORSLEY: On Monday, the president will be guest of honor at a giant party here in Washington. But not all Americans will be celebrating. Mr. Obama's challenge, as he begins his second term, is presiding over not just divided government but a deeply divided country. Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.