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Paul Greenberg: What happened to the Obama of bipartisanship?

It was so long ago that a new young senator from Illinois named Barack Obama might have been mistaken for an idealist.

It was so long ago that the usual naifs thought the little potboiler of a book he wrote, a thinly disguised campaign biography covered in political clichés, was an eloquent appeal to principle. It was so long ago that its title, "The Audacity of Hope," hadn't yet made audacity and hope sound ironic in his mouth.

This was how long ago it was: Barack Obama was still defending bipartisanship instead of just lambasting the opposition whenever he was asked to compromise. "Genuine bipartisanship," he told us back then, "assumes an honest process of give-and take, and that the quality of compromise is measured by how well it serves some agreed-upon goal, whether better schools or lower deficits."

That's right: It was so long ago that Barack Obama was talking about better schools, not just more and more teachers, and lower deficits, not just raising the ceiling on the national debt.

It was so long ago that a younger and still appealing Barack Obama could add that real bipartisanship "assumes the majority will be constrained -- by an exacting press corps and ultimately an informed electorate -- to negotiate in good faith."

But that was before the well-trained cadre that is the Washington press corps could be trusted to use a phrase like "a clean spending bill" without any compunction or even awareness of its bias. A modern day George Orwell would have spotted that bit of newspeak immediately as a prime example of the corruption of language by politics, and probably included it any new edition of his classic essay, "Politics and the English Language."

It was so long ago that a young Sen. Obama's "informed electorate" would never have let an older President Obama get away with summoning the leaders of the opposition to the White House for negotiations so they -- and the country -- could be informed that he wasn't about to negotiate.

It was so long ago that the country might have expected that the president who had written those idealistic words about the need for genuine bipartisanship would govern in the moderate mode of an Eisenhower, or like that of the two Bushes, or even adopt the now paradigmatic example of Ronald Reagan's negotiating technique. The Gipper would meet regularly with Tip O'Neill, the Speaker of the House at the time, for a libation and negotiation at the end of the day. Both the Hollywood actor, a master of B-movie American myth, and the old-fashioned Boston pol knew how the game was played -- and how the country was governed. Both knew when to orate and when to shut up and deal.

But that was all so long ago. Now that once-convivial political air has been replaced by a great cloud of nothing but talking points churned out by both sides and swarming like gnats on a late summer's eve over our nation's miasmal capital, blocking out any sight of the setting sun.

Now the innocents all around, those multitudes of wanna-be insiders, a low ambition indeed for citizens of a republic, solemnly repeat their side's talking points as if they meant something. Something besides "I'm just another groupthinker parroting the party line." Which party and which line scarcely matters if there is no exacting press or informed electorate to check our political reflexes in a political climate dominated for the dim moment by what Orwell called "the smelly little orthodoxies that are contending for our souls."

Meanwhile, the American people -- oh, yes, them -- still deserve a government that actually governs.

But this, too, will soon be long ago. And this impasse, too, will be gone, like any other passing plague of insects. Never give up on this country. It may have been Winston Churchill who said Americans can be counted on to do the right thing -- but only after we've tried everything else.



By PAUL GREENBERG