Get PolitiFact in your inbox.

By J.B. Wogan August 31, 2012

Record-setting partisan divide

While campaigning for the presidency in 2008, Barack Obama said he would "turn the page on the ugly partisanship in Washington" and pass a bipartisan agenda in Congress.

Instead, Congress set records last year for just how polarized it has become.

One way to measure the partisanship by looking at how many partisan votes -- votes where majorities from each party in the House and Senate vote against each other -- have taken place during the most recent congressional session. Since 1953, Congressional Quarterly has tracked those votes, and its tallies show extreme levels of partisanship.

The House, led by a Republican majority that includes a slate of tea party members elected for the first time in 2010, set a record for the frequency of these party-line votes.

The Senate, where Democrats were in charge, held far fewer partisan votes, but the average Democratic senator fell in line with his or her party's majority more than any time in the last five decades -- another record.

Not only isn't Congress passing a bipartisan agenda, it isn't passing any comprehensive agenda, said James Muirhead, Jr., a political science professor at Dartmouth University.

So far, the current Congress has passed 61 bills into law, putting it on pace to be the least productive since 1947, according to an analysis by USA Today.

The parties have found common ground on "small bore things," such as reforming the Food and Drug Administration and reaching a free-trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama, said James Thurber, a presidential scholar at American University and author of the book Obama in Office.

But those measures have been overshadowed by contentious fights over the federal budget.

It's not clear how much Obama tried to engender a bipartisan mood in Washington.

"I don't think Obama ever brought the Republicans up to the White House in the way that (President Bill Clinton) would," said Sean Theriault, a political scientist from University of Texas at Austin. "It's unlikely it would have helped, but he didn't try as hard as he could have."

For proof that Obama made an effort, supporters point to tax cuts in his economic stimulus package, a proposal for universal health care originally conceived by conservatives and the appointments of Republicans as his secretaries of transportation and defense.

But by and large, his stimulus package and health care reforms ran against the ideological grain of mainstream conservatism, and the vast majority of his department heads are Democrats.

Political scientists Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann, who work for moderate left and right-leaning research institutes, say the stalemate in Congress is the Republicans' fault. They published a book in April about unprecedented polarization in Congress called "It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism."

"It was a conscious decision not to cooperate (with Obama) no matter what," Norman Ornstein said in an interview. "It's not clear to me there was a whole lot he could have done otherwise."

Here at the Obameter, though, we measure outcomes, not intentions. Obama said he would "bring Democrats and Republicans together to pass an agenda." That hasn't happened. We rate this Promise Broken.

Our Sources

Interview with Jonathan Alter, author of "The Promise: President Obama, Year One," Aug. 20, 2012

Email interview with Sean Theriault, professor of political science at University of Texas at Austin, Aug. 16, 2012

Interview with Norman Ornstein, political science scholar at American Enterprise Institute, Aug. 17, 2012

Interview with Laurel Harbridge, professor of political science at Northwestern University, Aug. 16, 2012

Email Interview with James Muirhead, Jr., professor of political science at Dartmouth University, Aug. 16, 2012

CQ Vote Study Guide, Jan. 16, 2012

The Washington Post, Obama gets win as Congress passes free-trade agreements, Oct. 12, 2011

The Hill, OVERNIGHT HEALTH: Senate passes FDA bill as SCOTUS countdown continues, June 26, 2012

USA Today, This Congress could be least productive since 1947, Aug. 14, 2012

The Washington Post, Let's just say it: The Republicans are the problem., April 27, 2012

Louis Jacobson
By Louis Jacobson January 17, 2011

Lame-Duck Congress showed signs of change

Just a few months ago, Obama's pledge to change the tone in Washington -- which we rated Stalled a year ago -- looked like it was on an icy, downhill slide to Promise Broken. The nation had endured months of angry rhetoric in the 2010 campaign and constant bickering between the two parties in Congress.

Then something unexpected happened. Like the darkness of a blizzard yielding to chilly sunshine, Washington in December seemed to turn into a different place. The White House and congressional leaders struck deals in face-to-face negotiations; long-stalled legislation began to move; and more than a few Republicans began to vote for Democratic-sponsored bills.

The change in tone may not be permanent, and there's little doubt that wide gaps on public policy persist between the two parties. But in rating this promise, we couldn't ignore two months of evidence that, once they stepped away from the bitter recriminations of the campaign trail, the two parties could -- if they really wanted to -- work together constructively.

The lame-duck session -- held after the midterm election results were in but before newly elected lawmakers took their seats -- produced a bounty of major legislation supported by both Republicans and Democrats, including the White House:

• A two-year extension of the tax cuts first passed under George W. Bush, was approved by the House by a 277-148 vote. Supporters included an almost equal number of Republicans and Democrats.

• Ratification of the New START nuclear weapons treaty with Russia, by a 71-26 vote in the Senate.

• Passage of a sweeping food-safety bill, by a 73-25 vote in the Senate.

• An end to the military's Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy toward gay servicemembers, by a 65-31 Senate vote.

• Approval of a bill to provide health care to 9/11 responders, by a voice vote in the Senate -- a method of voting that signals near-unanimity.

"The historic lame duck session was more bipartisan than expected and more bipartisan than we have seen in years," said James Thurber, an American University political scientist and author of Obama in Office: The First Two Years. "The tone of official Washington has changed for the better."

This gentler tone continued into January. First, the parties had to navigate the transition of power in the House, against a backdrop of pomp and ceremony that lends itself more to highminded oratory than partisan rancor. Then, less than a week later, came the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., and 19 others in Tucson, Ariz. The first assassination attempt against a Member of Congress in three decades seemed to jolt lawmakers in a highly personal way.

While some activists on the left and right spent the next few days trying to cast blame in the wake of the shooting, many lawmakers rose above partisanship.

Obama himself echoed this sentiment in his oration at the Tucson memorial service on Jan. 12, 2011. The president urged Americans "to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully" and to "remind ourselves of all the ways that our hopes and dreams are bound together."

The president continued, "At a time when our discourse has become so sharply polarized, at a time when we are far too eager to lay the blame for all that ails the world at the feet of those who think differently than we do, it's important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we are talking with each other in a way that heals, not a way that wounds."

In mid-January, several lawmakers also proposed that members of Congress sit intermixed during the president's State of the Union address, rather than sitting with the parties divided by an aisle, as a sign of unity.

The acid test of this change in tone is whether public opinion has shifted -- and there's evidence that it has. In an Associated Press-GfK poll released in mid-January, Obama's approval rating rose by 6 percentage points to 53 percent and congressional Republicans got a seven-point bump to 36 percent -- a joint gain for fierce rivals that suggests benefits from working together. Nearly half of the poll's respondents expressed optimism that Obama and the GOP House could work together to solve the nation's biggest problems -- seven points higher than last fall.

To be sure, partisan vitriol persists among both parties' more extreme activists. But as we judge this promise, we've decided not to hold Obama (or House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, for that matter) accountable for the actions of rank-and-file extremists or media figures outside their control. Instead, we're judging Obama's ability to help set a more civil tone with elected lawmakers, even if the two sides spar over policy differences.

Longtime Washington hands caution that bitter partisanship is poised to return at any moment, particularly as the 2012 presidential campaign heats up.

"The works will be gummed up before long," said congressional analyst Norm Ornstein. "There is too much built in to the partisan, polarized dynamic of the era of the permanent campaign. This is going to be a long march to a more civil environment, not a short cruise."

And yet there are also structural factors that argue in favor of diminished tensions, at least to some degree. Almost by nature, divided government brings about a change in tone "because everyone now has vested interest in governing," said John Feehery, a onetime aide to former House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill.

In all, although the evidence on Obama's promise to change the tone in Washington is mixed, we see enough progress since January, 2010 to move it out of the Stalled category. While the situation could change in the coming months -- and if it does, we'll change our rating -- for now, we're moving this promise to In the Works.

Our Sources, "Obama: Lame-Duck Legislation Marks New 'Season of Progress,'" Dec. 22, 2010

New York Times, "House Honors Victims and Weighs Its Next Steps," Jan. 12, 2011

New York Times, "Obama Calls for a New Era of Civility in U.S. Politics," Jan 13, 2011

CNN's Anderson Cooper 360, interview with Nancy Pelosi, Jan. 12, 2011

Associated Press, "Poll numbers climb for both Obama, Republicans," Jan. 13, 2011

Washington Post, "House GOP to resume health-care repeal effort, but with more civil tone," Jan. 14, 2011

E-mail interview with James Thurber, an American University political scientist and author of Obama in Office: The First Two Years, Jan. 14, 2011

E-mail interview with John Feehery, onetime aide to former House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., Jan. 13, 2011

E-mail interview with Norm Ornstein, congressional analyst with the American Enterprise Institute, Jan. 13, 2011

E-mail interview with Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, Jan. 13, 2011

E-mail interview with David Greenberg, historian at Rutgers University, Jan. 13, 2011

Bill Adair
By Bill Adair January 19, 2010
Angie Drobnic Holan
By Angie Drobnic Holan January 19, 2010

A year later, lots of partisanship

As we reviewed President Barack Obama's campaign promises from his first year, we felt we were missing a big one: Obama's pledge to change the tone in Washington.

It was missing because, a year ago when we created our list of campaign promises, we found many references to changing the tone but no specific, measurable promise. When we finalized our list, that one didn't make the cut.

But now, on his one-year anniversary in office, we've decided to add it to the Obameter database because, even though it is more abstract than the other promises we've cataloged, it was a central part of Obama's campaign.

Here are just a few examples we found of Obama promising bipartisanship:

• In introducing his vice presidential nominee Joe Biden, Obama said, "After decades of steady work across the aisle, I know he'll be able to help me turn the page on the ugly partisanship in Washington, so we can bring Democrats and Republicans together to pass an agenda that works for the American people."

• In a USA Today op-ed on Sept. 18, 2008, Obama wrote: "The only way to end the petty partisanship that has consumed Washington for so long and make a difference in the lives of ordinary Americans is by bringing Republicans and Democrats together to get things done. That's what I've done throughout over a decade in public office."

• In an interview with National Public Radio on Jan. 9, 2008, Obama said that voters are trying to "figure out who is going to be able to best deliver on the change that they want. And the argument that I'm going to keep making is that we can't get that change unless we have a working majority that can attract independents, attract some Republicans. And that is something that I think I can do most effectively as the nominee and, ultimately, as the president."

• Obama listed "bipartisanship and openness" as a topic in his major campaign document "Blueprint for Change." (From which we cataloged his promise to create a bipartisan consultative group on foreign policy. That's rated Stalled.)

So he talked a great game on bipartisanship and it was clearly a central theme of his campaign. To measure his success, we decided to look at how he fared in Congress on his most important legislative initiatives.

On the economic stimulus bill that passed in February 2009, only three Republicans in the Senate supported the measure, and in the House, no Republicans supported it.

On the initial votes for a health care overhaul, he got one Republican in the House but no Republicans in the Senate.

It is worth pointing out that on few lower-profile votes, he did a little better at attracting support from Republicans.

On an early vote to expand the State Children's Health Insurance Program, or SCHIP, six Senate Republicans and 40 Republican House members supported the measure. On the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, a bill to expand community service programs approved in April, 22 Republican senators favored the bill and 26 Republican House members voted for it. And a bill to create a credit card bill of rights won even more support, receiving affirmative votes from 35 Republicans in the Senate and 113 Republicans in the House.

But those votes are the exception in a year when partisan rhetoric has been strident as ever -- so much so that a Republican congressman -- Joe Wilson of South Carolina -- yelled out "You lie!" in the middle of Obama's address to a joint session of Congress.

We won't try to settle the difficult question about who is at fault for the continued partisanship. Democrats say the Republicans have become the "party of no" because they want to deny Obama even the smallest victory. Republicans say the Democrats have locked them out of the process and are simply ramming their agenda through. (We recall similar charges -- in reverse -- when the Republicans were in charge and the Democrats were in the minority.)

But regardless of where you place the blame, Obama has clearly fallen far short on this promise.

At a speech at a Washington church on Sunday, Obama seemed to acknowledge his lack of progress. "There were those who argued that because I had spoke of a need for unity in this country that our nation was somehow entering into a period of post-partisanship.  That didn't work out so well."

No, it didn't. One year later, Obama has not "turned the page on the ugly partisanship," as he vowed to do. The parties in Washington are as sharply divided as ever. Party leaders go on TV and do a great job hurling talking points at each other, but only rarely do they actually work together. 

It's tempting to rate this one a Promise Broken because there's virtually no sign of progress. This is an election year, so the prospects for bipartisanship are even lower.

But Obama has only been in office one year and much can happen in the next three. So for now, we'll rate this one Stalled and see how he does in the rest of his term.

Our Sources

Latest Fact-checks