Just a few months ago, Obama's pledge to change the tone in Washington -- which we rated Stalled a year ago -- looked like it was on an icy, downhill slide to Promise Broken. The nation had endured months of angry rhetoric in the 2010 campaign and constant bickering between the two parties in Congress.
Then something unexpected happened. Like the darkness of a blizzard yielding to chilly sunshine, Washington in December seemed to turn into a different place. The White House and congressional leaders struck deals in face-to-face negotiations; long-stalled legislation began to move; and more than a few Republicans began to vote for Democratic-sponsored bills.
The change in tone may not be permanent, and there's little doubt that wide gaps on public policy persist between the two parties. But in rating this promise, we couldn't ignore two months of evidence that, once they stepped away from the bitter recriminations of the campaign trail, the two parties could -- if they really wanted to -- work together constructively.
The lame-duck session -- held after the midterm election results were in but before newly elected lawmakers took their seats -- produced a bounty of major legislation supported by both Republicans and Democrats, including the White House:
• A two-year extension of the tax cuts first passed under George W. Bush, was approved by the House by a 277-148 vote. Supporters included an almost equal number of Republicans and Democrats.
• Ratification of the New START nuclear weapons treaty with Russia, by a 71-26 vote in the Senate.
• Passage of a sweeping food-safety bill, by a 73-25 vote in the Senate.
• An end to the military's Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy toward gay servicemembers, by a 65-31 Senate vote.
• Approval of a bill to provide health care to 9/11 responders, by a voice vote in the Senate -- a method of voting that signals near-unanimity.
"The historic lame duck session was more bipartisan than expected and more bipartisan than we have seen in years," said James Thurber, an American University political scientist and author of Obama in Office: The First Two Years. "The tone of official Washington has changed for the better."
This gentler tone continued into January. First, the parties had to navigate the transition of power in the House, against a backdrop of pomp and ceremony that lends itself more to highminded oratory than partisan rancor. Then, less than a week later, came the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., and 19 others in Tucson, Ariz. The first assassination attempt against a Member of Congress in three decades seemed to jolt lawmakers in a highly personal way.
While some activists on the left and right spent the next few days trying to cast blame in the wake of the shooting, many lawmakers rose above partisanship.
Obama himself echoed this sentiment in his oration at the Tucson memorial service on Jan. 12, 2011. The president urged Americans "to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully" and to "remind ourselves of all the ways that our hopes and dreams are bound together."
The president continued, "At a time when our discourse has become so sharply polarized, at a time when we are far too eager to lay the blame for all that ails the world at the feet of those who think differently than we do, it's important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we are talking with each other in a way that heals, not a way that wounds."
In mid-January, several lawmakers also proposed that members of Congress sit intermixed during the president's State of the Union address, rather than sitting with the parties divided by an aisle, as a sign of unity.
The acid test of this change in tone is whether public opinion has shifted -- and there's evidence that it has. In an Associated Press-GfK poll released in mid-January, Obama's approval rating rose by 6 percentage points to 53 percent and congressional Republicans got a seven-point bump to 36 percent -- a joint gain for fierce rivals that suggests benefits from working together. Nearly half of the poll's respondents expressed optimism that Obama and the GOP House could work together to solve the nation's biggest problems -- seven points higher than last fall.
To be sure, partisan vitriol persists among both parties' more extreme activists. But as we judge this promise, we've decided not to hold Obama (or House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, for that matter) accountable for the actions of rank-and-file extremists or media figures outside their control. Instead, we're judging Obama's ability to help set a more civil tone with elected lawmakers, even if the two sides spar over policy differences.
Longtime Washington hands caution that bitter partisanship is poised to return at any moment, particularly as the 2012 presidential campaign heats up.
"The works will be gummed up before long," said congressional analyst Norm Ornstein. "There is too much built in to the partisan, polarized dynamic of the era of the permanent campaign. This is going to be a long march to a more civil environment, not a short cruise."
And yet there are also structural factors that argue in favor of diminished tensions, at least to some degree. Almost by nature, divided government brings about a change in tone "because everyone now has vested interest in governing," said John Feehery, a onetime aide to former House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill.
In all, although the evidence on Obama's promise to change the tone in Washington is mixed, we see enough progress since January, 2010 to move it out of the Stalled category. While the situation could change in the coming months -- and if it does, we'll change our rating -- for now, we're moving this promise to In the Works.