As the House gave President Obama his first big legislative victory, it was clear that Obama so far had failed to deliver the post-partisan era that he called for in his inauguration address only last week, when he proclaimed an end to the "petty grievances" and "worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics."
Familiar fault lines in view
The fault lines of past ideological wars were in view during the fight over the $819 billion stimulus package, with shots coming from well-known conservative warriors such as Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Matt Drudge.
The familiar machinery of partisan politics, a fixture of the Clinton and Bush eras, kicked into operation undaunted as Republicans began running an ad in Nevada, the home state of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, charging that his support for the stimulus bill was tantamount to "wasting our hard-earned money."
GOP campaign operatives challenged Democrats on why a bill aimed at an economic crisis also contained money for education programs on sexually transmitted diseases -- a question posed atop the Drudge Report website.
And, despite Obama's high approval ratings and his efforts to court Republican support, the old tactics seemed to have some effect. Not a single Republican voted for the bill, and even a few conservative Democrats and some freshmen took the risk of opposing a popular, new president from their own party.
"It's a very conservative district," said one rookie Democrat, Rep. Walt Minnick, describing his constituency in Idaho. Minnick said many people in his district listen to talk radio. "They listen to everybody, of course, and I'm influenced by them."
Wednesday's vote, while clearly a victory for Obama, also marked a victory of sorts for Limbaugh and other conservative opinion leaders. They said Obama was trying to bring Republicans aboard merely to spread the political risk while also conspiring to use the stimulus package to fund a liberal agenda.
Later, he will need GOP
Obama is attempting to mold his grass-roots campaign network into a force that can be called upon to pressure lawmakers to support his ideas.
That network is still in the planning stages. White House officials hope it will be active in time for big battles over health care and energy, but Wednesday's party-line vote showed that Obama himself, despite repeated meetings with Republican leaders, has not yet presented a compelling enough case for his ideological adversaries to fall in line.
The Democrats' wide margin in the House, and the fact that the GOP caucus has been reduced to a collection of core conservatives representing the reddest Republican districts, diminished that challenge in the short run. But as he fights for future legislation, Obama will need support from a few Republicans in the Senate and from some Democrats who represent conservative states.
Conservative opposition to the stimulus bill began building over the weekend, with websites raising questions about provisions that would spend millions on putting sod on the National Mall and funding condoms for the poor.
Limbaugh charged that Republicans were at risk of voting for a big-government bill that was designed to keep Democrats in power for "as long as we live." The power of the conservative machinery was evident when Democrats agreed to remove the sod and contraceptive provisions.
White House officials also have sought to calm nerves among squeamish Democrats. Chief of staff Rahm Emanuel agreed to the conservative Democrats' demands that the administration support enacting future budget restrictions to restrain debt spending.