One of the most frustrating aspects of being an elected official has to be the fact that the American public simply has no earthly idea what it wants or, conversely, that it wants something that makes absolutely no sense. Imagine being the chef at a restaurant with a ridiculously vague menu ("Something kinda Asian with some sort of meat in it") and diners who make requests divorced from all rules of logic ("I want something vegan but full of pork – kosher pork"). Now imagine that the diners can fire you whenever they feel that their eminently reasonable desires are not being addressed.
The classic dilemma in American politics is that voters want more government services coupled with lower (or preferably no) taxes. They want unlimited rights combined with total security. Free trade and job security. Deregulation and effective regulation. In short, they want all sorts of things that make no sense together. The new President, if his actions during the recent economic stimulus debate are any indication, responds to these unrealistic expectations in a manner that virtually guarantees his failure.
Many politicians make the fatal error of taking seriously public calls for cooperation or bipartisanship. Yes, opinion polls indicate that bipartisanship is popular. Name a vague positive term that doesn't poll well. What if we polled the public and asked if they like politeness? Happiness? Prosperity? Justice? Elected officials who are the bestest of friends and go on group camping trips together? Of course the public is going to respond overwhelmingly in favor of a ludicrous question about whether it wants to see the two major parties cooperate and get along.
What is misleading about this line of questioning is the failure to place it in context of the public's dozens of other competing and contradictory wants. Sure, everyone wants "bipartisanship." But how much do they want it? Do they want it more than they want tax cuts? Is it important enough that they're willing to see Congress gridlocked to preserve it? Enough that they're willing to have Congress churn out mediocre, watered-down legislation that is little more than a monument to appeasement and committee thinking?
Yes, the desire to play nice is inversely related to Congressional productivity and the effectiveness of legislation. If you don't understand why, try this: invite 75 people to your house and order pizza. Give everyone in the room an equal vote and unlimited input on the choice of pizza toppings. Ensure that nobody takes control of the process and says "OK, here's what we're gonna do." What happens? Well, first it will take days to make a decision – long past the point at which everyone started to starve. More importantly, the end result, the Pizza that Attempts to Please Everyone, will of course please no one. The group will either revert to the lowest common denominator, the pizza that offends no one (i.e. plain, with no toppings), or it will end up ordering the Omnibus Pizza with 75 different toppings. Either result will be a tremendous disappointment, leaving many to wonder "If this is the shit we end up with, why bother ordering pizza?"
As Paul Krugman notes, President Obama's desire to be a "centrist" or Mr. Bipartisanship is going to mortally wound his administration in a hurry if he does not learn to curb it. Yes, people want bipartisanship. But they also want Congress to get things done, and moreover they want said things to be effective solutions to real problems. Nobody loves bipartisanship so much that he or she is willing to endure a $700 billion piece of legislation that attempted to please everyone and hence accomplishes nothing. He needs to rapidly distance himself from the saccharine campaign rhetoric, the let's-all-get-along stuff which he believes the public genuinely wants. In reality the President has a single job: get shit done. He is going to bear responsibility for whatever happens anyway. The buck stops here, remember. In a couple of years the public will not give a flying crap whether or not President Obama reached out and worked with members of the other party in crafting legislation. They will, conversely, care about why the stimulus package spent a metric pantload of money but didn't accomplish a damn thing. It is never going to be acceptable to claim, "Well, the stimulus sucked but we all got along really well and played nice while we created it, and that's all that matters!"
No, it doesn't matter. Regardless of how many opinion polls indicate that the public wants to see everyone play nice, it will never be more important than productivity and, more importantly, success. It will be far better to craft a piece of legislation that works while telling the GOP to blow it out its collective ass than to be nice and end up with garbage. If the bill succeeds in alleviating the crisis, the overwhelming majority of the public will be too pleased to give a shit that Obama had to be mean to Richard Shelby in order to get it passed. And if it fails, the public will hardly remember or care that the bill's passage involved a heartwarming display of bipartisan cooperation.