Just over a year ago, and just a few days into the Obama presidency, I posted an entry on Page Turner lauding the new president's efforts to reach across the aisle in genuine dialogue, comparing his early “post-partisan" efforts to the recommendations in The Authentic Enterprise. Although I was wise enough to issue a note of caution about the success of this approach in highly partisan Washington, I've been embarrassed at how quickly the spirit of dialogue and compromise disappeared.
I had been hopeful, during the election, that whoever won the presidency – Obama or McCain – a new era of cooperation and compromise might be on offer. This emphatically is not what has occurred. If anything, the partisan bickering inside the Beltway has reached new highs – or lows. I was caught up in the euphoria of the moment, perhaps, and in retrospect, I look naïve. Nothing could be worse for a seasoned political and corporate communications pro like me than looking naïve.
Now, a year later, we're seeing the president push the reset button – an over-used but in this case appropriate phrase – in an attempt to clear the poisoned atmosphere that has left him unable to enact major pieces of his program. In his State of the Union address, the president said, “I'd like to begin monthly meetings with both Democratic and Republican leadership. I know you can't wait." The assembled members of Congress laughed. I was astounded. He hasn't been having regular meetings with the congressional leadership?
Without the Scott Brown election in Massachusetts, this moment would not have arrived. But it's apparently become clear to the president that the success of his presidency may rest upon his ability to build meaningful cooperation across the aisle.
I was also surprised when I happened to catch the live broadcast of the president's appearance at the Republican House members' retreat in Baltimore on Friday. My first reaction was horror that the cameras had been invited. This meant all we would get was more posturing, I feared.
As I watched in fascination, though, I began to relax. Yes, there was some recitation of talking points, but there appeared to be something else operating – perhaps a sense on both sides that the American people were watching, and that they expected the children to play nicely in the sandbox. You could almost see both the president and some of his interlocutors biting their tongues in an effort to stave off their worst impulses to hurl accusations.
Instead, differences were aired, but with the respectful tone that is at least a starting point for meaningful dialogue. I wouldn't say meaningful dialogue was achieved, and for fear of lapsing into naivety once again, am loathe to predict that common sense and good will is about to break out all over Washington. But one can always hope and, perhaps, even offer a word of encouragement.
So, (please stop me if I become too sappy) Mr. President and leaders of Congress, let's have some more of these nascent efforts to get along. No one expects a love fest. But it's not too much to expect that differences are aired, honestly, straightforwardly, and without rancor. I suggest you might want to try to have some of these conversations behind closed doors. (I know, we're all for transparency, but a little secrecy won't hurt as long as no back-room deals are cut. With the cameras turned off, maybe you can make some quiet attempts to find a little common ground – something that can best be done without the posturing and the talking points.)
The Washington Post's media critic, Dan Balz, quotes John Fortier of the American Enterprise Institute saying that dialogue between the president and the Republicans in Baltimore may build trust. That's the whole point. Our ability to work together to make progress or create value, whether in business or politics, requires trust. It's a lesson worth remembering.
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