Legislators by definition legislate. According the mainstream Washington press corps, if only Obama would build a personal relationship with Mitch McConnell and John Boehner, then things would get done in Washington. Apparently there’s a lack of trust or the necessary personal warmth required for compromise. Comprise, of course, equals bipartisanship. We are to believe that a bipartisan compromise begins in the middle where the cooler headed moderates and experienced hands of the older generation meet and come to an agreement that no one will like. Universal dissatisfaction with legislation is taken to be proof of its wisdom.
The reality is that this is not how politics works.
Legislators do not necessarily want to legislate
The legislative process is a multiparty negotiation. As in any negotiation the parties have to choose between any prospective agreement and their best alternative to a negotiated agreement. Legislators can prefer inaction out of principled disagreement or just to keep the issue alive for the next general election – political opportunism is shocking, I know. President Obama, for his part, can prefer executive action or a veto to the kind of compromise necessary for legislation to be enacted.
Bipartisanship is not centrist
Party affiliation is not akin to the playground distinction between shirts and skins. The Republicans and Democrats have genuine and stark ideological differences. The congressional leadership of both parties will, in general, want to win the support of a majority of their respective party caucuses for any bill they are going to support.
If Mitch McConnell is looking for 60 votes to overcome a potential filibuster, he’ll be sure to target 6 to 8 votes among the Democrats and try to keep his entire caucus united. If a handful of Democrats in the senate defect from their party on any given vote, a united Republican party can deliver conservative legislation for the president’s signature. As noted above, they may be happy to see a veto.
In any case McConnell is unlikely to personally support legislation that does not have more Republican than Democratic votes. On balance it’s hard to argue that this doesn't shift the policy agenda in a Republican direction in terms of both priorities and policy content. The president thus can help advance a more pragmatic Republican agenda at the expense of his own party's priorities. The Washington press corps will praise him for bipartisanship.