Incoming President Barack Obama wants to win some Republican votes. Throughout the 2008 campaign, Obama promised to bring bipartisanship to Washington. Besides the intellectual and emotional appeal of a political style that is more inclusive and avoids red/blue America, there is a lot to gain if Obama can deliver on this promise. History shows that legislation with bipartisan support — like Social Security or civil rights — can last over time.
But bipartisanship will not come easily. The roots of partisanship in Washington run deep in the fabric of our political process and the makeup of our electorate. As president, Obama must think strategically about ways he can secure support from the GOP.
Some presidents have used public speeches as a powerful mechanism to build pressure on opponents. During the 1930s, Franklin D. Roosevelt faced a Congress in which Midwestern Republican isolationists commanded sufficient power, particularly after the 1938 midterm elections, to prevent him from increasing aid to European allies. “It’s a terrible thing to look over your shoulder when you are trying to lead and find no one there,” Roosevelt mused to his trusted adviser Sam Rosenman a few days later.
Roosevelt delivered speech after speech in which he spoke about the need for the U.S. to combat the threats from Germany and Japan. Realizing that he did not have sufficient support in Congress, which had passed a series of neutrality laws tying his hands, Roosevelt continued to lay out the case for how America’s failure to intervene abroad increased the chances that our citizens would have to fight. Public opinion shifted dramatically during this period; the GOP lagged behind much of the nation. Finally, in 1940, Republicans chose the internationalist Wendell Willkie to run as their candidate because he had broken with his party on foreign affairs.
Obama certainly has shown the same capacity to use words to move public opinion. Added to his skills as a speaker is the massive grass-roots network developed during his campaign, one connected by the Internet, through which he can light a fire under obstructionist Republicans.
Presidents have also used bipartisan appointments to advance their agenda. Obama’s decision to retain Robert Gates as secretary of defense suggests he is well aware of this strategy. Shortly before the Republican convention in 1940, FDR surprised many Americans by selecting Col. Frank Knox as secretary of the Navy and Henry Stimson as the head of the War Department. Knox was a Chicago Republican and the publisher of the Chicago Daily News. Stimson had served under Herbert Hoover and was a prominent member of the Eastern wing of the GOP. The announcement undercut Republicans’ efforts to distinguish their party from the administration.
Sometimes presidents have found disaffected politicians who are seeking to rebuild their party by forming a bipartisan alliance. Comments by Sen. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.) at Hillary Clinton’s confirmation hearings to be secretary of state indicate he might be one such legislator, at least on national security issues. Republican Sens. Olympia Snowe of Maine and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania are also ripe for the picking.
President Harry Truman adopted this strategy in 1948 and 1949 when he reached out to Michigan Sen. Arthur Vandenberg, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee and a former isolationist who turned internationalist during the war. Vandenberg felt that Republicans had to be at the forefront of the struggle against communism or they would be forever tarnished as isolationists as a result of their (and his own) posture in the 1930s. At a time when many Republicans were lashing out against Truman, criticizing him for being weak on domestic communism and wasting money on financial aid in Europe, Vandenberg helped move legislation such as the Marshall Plan through Congress.
Finally, a president can always rely on old-fashioned horse-trading. As Congress considers an infrastructure bill, Obama must make sure enough money goes to struggling Republican states and districts that their legislators will gain an interest in supporting his economic recovery program. President Ronald Reagan was able to undercut House Democrats in 1981 when he pushed for a historic Economic Recovery Tax Act that slashed rates and indexed taxes to inflation. His bill also provided benefits for business.
When House Democrats initially opposed the bill, the administration let them add goodies to the package. This “Christmas tree” approach allowed everyone to get a little something from the bill. Reagan left his first year with a huge legislative victory, one where he could claim that Democrats had joined the Reagan Revolution. The president put aside concerns about deficits for the time being. “I’ll answer that further down the road,” Reagan said when asked about balancing the budget.
Partisanship won’t disappear in Washington. Yet there are a number of ways — as Roosevelt, Truman and Reagan discovered — for a president to proactively nurture opposition support on key measures. Sometimes these bills have turned out to be signature achievements for a president and landmark legislation for the nation.
Julian E. Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School. He is completing a book on the history of national security politics since World War II, to be published by Basic Books.