Is President Obama sending mixed signals on bipartisanship?

Aaron Guerrero Contributor
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At the moment, the political climate in Washington is filled with toxicity, a place where partisan warfare has become the daily norm and election year politics are the determining factor in how willing both parties are to work with one another.

But glimmers of bipartisanship have recently cropped up, particularly on matters of foreign policy.

It began with the dismissal of Gen. Stanley McChrystal following the controversial remarks he and his staff made to Rolling Stone magazine about the president and other notable members of the civilian leadership team.

The trifecta of John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Joe Liberman, senators well known for having a bipartisan streak, provided early political cover and support for Obama’s right and ability as commander-in-chief to remove McChrystal from his post as lead General in Afghanistan.

McChrystal was replaced by the uber popular, General extraordinaire, David Petraeus, a move that won both political and substantive acclaim from members of congress all across the ideological spectrum, as well as the cable news chattering class. Petraeus easily breezed through his senate confirmation, tallying a 99-0 vote of approval.

The bipartisan goodwill further extended to the issue of Iran, where both chambers of Congress passed, and the president signed into law, stricter sanctions aimed at preventing the Iranians from acquiring nuclear weapons.

But in domestic affairs, the president’s efforts to reach across the aisle have been more unpredictable and streaky.

Last Tuesday, the president held a meeting at the White House on climate change legislation with key senators from both parties. Although the meeting did not produce a tentative agreement, the president’s gesture of inviting Republicans for a face-to-face discussion established a mark of goodwill between himself and senate GOPer’s that had been blatantly absent.

By Wednesday, however, Obama had shelved the bipartisan niceties for a rousing speech that excoriated congressional Republicans.

Speaking at a town hall in Racine, Wisconsin, the president laid out a staunch defense of his administration’s economic policies, while accusing the opposition party of “cutt[ing] taxes for the wealthy, cutt[ing] rules for corporations and cutt[ing] working folks lose to fend for themselves.”

It was a classic campaign style speech, unleashing a kind of no-holds-barred form of political combat that many Democrats hope to see more of between now and November.

Still, the partisan pitch of the speech had an air of peculiarity to it after the president had spent the previous day at the White House trying to woo senate Republicans to back his climate change legislation.

Portraying the opposition party as a collection of self-aggrandizing hypocrites hardly seemed like the right recipe for winning over hearts and minds from across the aisle.

In his much anticipated immigration speech last Thursday, the president’s duality continued. In one breath, he praised the “courageous leadership in the past shown by many Democrats and some Republicans—including, by the way, my predecessor, president Bush,” but in another breath implied that Republicans, due to  “pressures of partisanship and election year politics” had become the lone reason for immigration reform being stalled in congress.

This kind of incoherence surely won’t last.

As his parties chief delegate, Obama will undoubtedly settle on a more precise message to persuade voters that congress should remain in Democratic hands.

But will it be a message that consists of deriding and dismissing the GOP for the next four months in an effort to gin up a dreary Democratic base?

Or will it be a message touting bipartisan efforts and successes, appealing to a broader group of voters?

With both parties suffering from a strain from their more conservative and liberal wings, and the partisan gridlock in Washington showing little sign of relent, the moment is ripe for Obama to position himself as a man above the fray. A chance to reignite his appeal to frustrated voters by proving that his campaign promise of being a practitioner of a new kind of politics was sincere rather than a rhetorical charade.

Major battles over the stimulus and health care unquestionably have left him as a more polarizing figure today than when he first took office. And skepticism over the effectiveness of his policies has damaged his overall job approval numbers.

Yet he still remains far more popular than congress and Americans are still inclined to personally like him, leaving him as the best advocate Democrats have for fending off a Republican wave.

Whichever route the president ultimately takes, it will have major ramifications for the degree of success his party has in limiting its losses.

Aaron Guerrero is a 2009 UC Davis graduate, who majored in political science and minored in history. He formerly interned for Rep. Dan Lungren and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and is a freelance writer.