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Obama More Partisan, Practical Than Four Years Ago


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

Four years ago, then-Senator Barack Obama took the stage in Denver to accept his party's presidential nomination. He spoke of overcoming partisanship and economic turmoil. Well, tonight, President Obama will do it again with four years of experience under his belt. Since taking office, he has struggled to overcome a crushing recession, a weak recovery and a deeply divided electorate.

NPR's Scott Horsley has this story on the path the president has traveled.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Barack Obama burst onto the national stage at another Democratic convention, eight years ago. What most people remember from that speech was the Illinois Senate candidate's passionate appeal for an end to partisan bickering.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: There is not a liberal America and a conservative America. There is the United States of America.


HORSLEY: People heard that as a call for political cooperation, but there's a collective economic message as well: that we're all in this together. Mr. Obama argued then and now that making sure prosperity is broadly shared is good for business, while a top-heavy economy in which only the wealthy prosper is inherently unstable.

OBAMA: Our economy is strongest when our middle class grows and opportunity is spread as widely as possible.

HORSLEY: That was a speech that candidate Obama gave in early 2008, in which he outlined proposals for middle class tax breaks, consumer protections in the mortgage market, government investment in roads and renewable energy, and health care reform. Sound familiar?

AUSTAN GOOLSBEE: If you go back and look at that speech, it really was the now president outlining his view of what drives the economy.

HORSLEY: University of Chicago economist Austan Goolsbee was a senior advisor to the 2008 campaign and later worked in the Obama White House.

GOOLSBEE: It wasn't a top down thing. It was fundamentally based on a broader-based growth and prosperity as being the only sustainable kind of economic growth.

HORSLEY: This was a month before the Bear Stearns meltdown and seven months before Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy. Mr. Obama was talking about a decades-long erosion of the middle class. But a financial tsunami was just about to hit.

By the time he took office, the economy was in freefall. The president and Congressional Democrats rushed through a massive stimulus bill that suddenly pumped hundreds of billions of dollars into the kinds of programs Mr. Obama had been talking about for years. That spring, the president paused to explain why it made sense for the government to borrow and spend money when families and businesses were doing the opposite.

OBAMA: If every family in America, if every business in America cuts back all at once, then no one is spending any money, which means there are no customers, which means there are more layoffs, which means that the economy gets even worse. That's why the government has to step in and temporarily boost spending in order to stimulate demand.

HORSLEY: This classic Keynesian economics is somewhat counter-intuitive, and by his own admission, Mr. Obama didn't do a good enough job of selling it. Republicans had a simpler, bumper sticker argument, that government spending is the problem. While the mainstream consensus is that the stimulus did cushion the recession's blow, it didn't go far enough. And every monthly jobs report has turned into a referendum on Mr. Obama's policies, including the one that's due out tomorrow.

If the stimulus was controversial, the president's health care overhaul was even more so.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Kill the bill! Kill the bill! Kill...

HORSLEY: The combination of a weak economy and an unpopular health-care law, produced a political shellacking for the president's party in the 2010 elections. For the first time, Mr. Obama was forced to negotiate with the newly-empowered Republicans in Congress.

OBAMA: This is a big, diverse country. Not everybody agrees with us. I know that shocks people.

HORSLEY: Liberals were furious in late 2010 when Mr. Obama reluctantly agreed to extend Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy. They accused the president of caving in, rewarding GOP obstructionism. Mr. Obama defended the unemployment benefits and payroll tax cut he won in return, and tried to present himself as the reasonable man in Washington.

OBAMA: In order to get stuff done, we're going to compromise.

HORSLEY: But in fact, there was almost no compromise in the following year, despite months of fruitless negotiation on a grand bargain to reduce the deficit. Republicans repeatedly walked away from the talks rather than accept higher taxes on the wealthy. The standoff ultimately cost the government its triple-A bond rating.

OBAMA: I've been left at the altar now a couple of times. And I think that, you know, one of the questions that the Republican Party is going to have to ask itself is: Can they say yes to anything?

HORSLEY: By this time last year, Mr. Obama had given up trying to bargain with Republicans. Instead, he declared he would make his case directly to the American people. And that's what he's been trying to do for most of the last 12 months.

OBAMA: This isn't about class warfare. This is about the nation's welfare. It's about making choices that benefit not just the people who've done fantastically well over the last few decades, but that benefits the middle class.

HORSLEY: Unable to find common ground with today's Republicans, Mr. Obama repeatedly aligns himself with GOP leaders from a more cooperative era; noting it was Eisenhower who built the Interstate Highway System, Nixon who launched the EPA, and Ronald Reagan, who despite his airbrushed image, agreed to raise taxes to combat a yawning budget deficit.

OBAMA: It is this shared vision that I intend to carry forward in this century as president because it is a vision that has worked for the American middle class and everybody who is striving to get into the middle class.


HORSLEY: The fact that the president still talking about the same ideas to help the middle class, three-and-a-half years into office, could be seen as an admission that so far he's fallen short. But on the campaign trail in Iowa last week, Marilyn Wadden said she appreciates Mr. Obama's consistency.

MARILYN WADDEN: His website says the same thing now as it did four years ago, and that's a wonderful thing. He's working on everything - ticking them off one by one. And had he had a Congress who was more supportive, we would have gotten a lot more done.

HORSLEY: While Mr. Obama has struggled with the economy, one of his biggest successes came in national security. And here again, it was something he'd promised to do four years ago: send U.S. troops into Pakistan if the leader of al-Qaida were found there.

OBAMA: Tonight, I can report to the American people and to the world that the United States has conducted an operation that killed Osama bin Laden, the leader of al-Qaida.

HORSLEY: That night, as a crowd gathered outside the White House to celebrate bin Laden's death, Mr. Obama asked Americans to remember the sense of unity they felt in wake of the 9/11 attacks, a feeling he said had frayed in the years since. Mr. Obama has always talked about restoring a sense of common purpose to the country. He's called the November election a chance for Americans to end the stalemate in Washington.

Polls suggest, however, that stalemate extends far beyond the nation's capital. Eight years after a young Senate candidate declared an end to Red America and Blue America, the United States of America is as divided as ever.

Scott Horsley, NRP news, Charlotte. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.

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