For at least two decades, every president has promised to close the partisan divide and work with political rivals to resolve national problems. In 2008, Barack Obama convinced many voters he had a new approach to break the gridlock.
But bitter infighting during his first year as president has exacerbated the partisanship. And events since his State of the Union appeal for renewed bipartisan efforts illustrate why it is so much harder to achieve the reality than make the promise.
Obama, showing the inherent White House advantage, followed his initial appeal by calling for a bipartisan White House health care summit on Feb. 25. When Republicans suggested they might boycott, Obama held an impromptu White House news conference last week to stress that he would look seriously at GOP ideas.
That steps up pressure on Republican leaders, whose actions belie their talk of openness to compromise — from backing individual Republican senators holding up dozens of presidential nominations for purely parochial goals to backing away from cooperation on key measures, most recently the needed financial markets overhaul.
Republican leaders who urged emphasis on jobs won't say if they'll support Obama's proposals. After calling repeatedly for a bipartisan commission to curb the deficit — something for which both parties deserve blame — Republicans now oppose the proposal and indicate they won't participate.
The health care impasse illustrates how substance and politics contribute to the problem.
Substantive differences remain deep and probably irreconcilable.
The White House made clear it would start with House- and Senate-passed measures extending coverage to most Americans and curbing insurance abuses. Obama said again last week that he is open to GOP ideas, but left open how avidly he would woo Republicans by accepting their proposals to limit medical malpractice suits or allow interstate operation of insurance companies.
Republican leaders oppose the Democratic goal of requiring everyone to have health insurance. They are threatening not to show up at the summit unless Obama starts from scratch, an approach the president rejected and has no realistic chance of happening.
These positions reflect the pressures on both parties' leaders.
Republican conservatives want to kill any national health insurance plan, feeling some pressure from the tea-party wing that last summer orchestrated opposition to Obama's effort. That stance is bolstered by polls showing that most Americans oppose the current legislation.
Democrats face conflicting pressures. Conservative senators and House "Blue Dog" moderates stress holding down costs rather than expanding coverage. Liberals believe that Obama has accepted too many compromises, and urge a bigger governmental role.
They note that polls show some oppose the current bills because they want them stronger, not weaker.
Election politics argues against compromise.
Democrats have a vested interest in passing health and financial markets bills to fulfill campaign promises. They want their nominees confirmed so they can run the government and counter the more conservative GOP judicial and regulatory appointees.
Republicans have a vested political interest in seeing Obama and the Democrats fail, so they can argue that the president sought to do too much about the wrong things. And they want to maintain conservative control of the judiciary and regulatory agencies.
Though health care has gotten the headlines, curbing the deficit may be more important.
All successful efforts for 30 years have involved a bipartisan approach affecting revenues and spending. It's hardly coincidental that the Reagan, first Bush and Clinton administrations cut the deficit and spurred the economy with anti-deficit packages limiting spending and raising taxes.
Any renewed effort requires the same, something reluctantly accepted by Obama and the Democrats but opposed by Republicans who want to exclude taxes from any commission.
True bipartisanship means difficult compromises. The GOP seems too convinced it is winning politically to accept anything that would let Democrats enjoy any success.