Washington 1, Barack Obama 0

There's a remarkable sentence in Scott Wilson's preview of the agenda President Obama plans to lay out in Tuesday's State of the Union address.


US President Barack Obama looks on during a lunch with five young people at The Coupe restaurant in the Columbia Heights section of Washington DC, USA, 10 January 2014. EPA/Olivier Douliery / POOL

It's this: "A central ambition of Obama’s presidency — to change the way Washington works — has effectively been discarded as a distraction in a time of hardening partisanship."

That sentence, which is affirmed by a series of quotes from Obama senior officials regarding the power of the "pen and the phone" -- meaning taking executive actions on his priorities rather than trying to move them through the legislative process,  is an incredible admission when you consider that Barack Obama was elected in 2008  in large part on the idea that he could change Washington in some meaningful way.

"You have shown what history teaches us, that at defining moments like this one, the change we need doesn't come from Washington," Obama said when he accepted the Democratic nomination for president in 2008. "Change comes to Washington."

Not so much, it turns out.

No, Obama's inability to change the gridlock in Washington wasn't entirely his fault. Republicans, riven by their own family feud between tea party upstarts and the Republican establishment, were (and are) some combination of unwilling and unable to find common ground with the president. But, neither House Speaker John Boehner nor Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) were elected on their promise to fundamentally alter the calculus of Washington. That was President Obama.

The simple fact is that Obama -- despite his personal charisma and the historic nature of his election in 2008 -- came into office at a time in which partisan polarization, both in Congress and in the country, was rapidly worsening.  Take a look at this chart from Gallup that details the difference in presidential approval between self identified partisans.

Image courtesy of Gallup
Image courtesy of Gallup

The nine most polarizing years in the last six decades all belong to either President Obama or George W. Bush. And of of the 12 most polarizing presidential year ever, all but two have come since 2000.

Given that remarkable statistic, Obama's pledge to change how Washington worked -- for the better -- was doomed from the start. As we have learned over the past few years, there is not only no incentive for politicians to compromise, it has in fact been strongly disincentivized by a series of primary challenges to GOP incumbents  from the party's purist right wing. Add to that fact the trend toward self-sorting, politically speaking, and redistricting plans that have pushed safer and safer districts for incumbents of both parties, and the possibility for a president to "break the gridlock" barely exists.

(A side conversation: What does political popularity mean in this environment? The idea that a president will ever have a job approval score  -- barring some sort of national tragedy or rallying point -- that comes close to 60 percent-plus seems impossible. So, what then is success?  55 percent?)

Still, the emphasis on executive action in the wake of the failure to land a grand bargain on debt and spending issues, a comprehensive immigration reform package or increased strictures on guns is a telling sign that Barack Obama's attempts to change Washington are over. Now, with the additions of longtime DC hands like John Podesta into his inner circle, Obama seems content to try and make the Washington machine work better for him and his priorities.  The days of building a new machine are over.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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