Leading article: When to reach across the aisle

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The Independent Online

The Speaker of the US House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, allowed herself a broad smile, after announcing that Barack Obama's $819bn economic stimulus package had been passed by the House of Representatives. But there was never really any doubt. The Democrats enjoy a safe majority in the newly elected lower chamber, as they do in the Senate. The package is unlikely to face serious hurdles there either.

There was, though, a tiny piece of grit in the otherwise perfect oyster. The new President's much-vaunted hopes that he could lead a bipartisan approach to the economic crisis were dashed. The legislation passed without the help of a single Republican vote. It remains to be seen whether Republicans in the Senate maintain the same unanimity. Whatever happens, though, the package will now be identified – for better or worse – exclusively with the Democrats. If it fails to have the desired effect, it will be the Democrats and the President who take the rap.

To bury all hope of bipartisanship at this early stage in Mr Obama's presidency, however, would be premature in the extreme. It was unrealistic to expect that the Republicans, however roundly defeated in November, would cast in their lot with the Democrats so soon – or for the sake of legislation that represents so much, especially in terms of public spending, that they would instinctively oppose. In their own narrow political terms, they are probably right to keep their distance. For the country, too; even in times of crisis there is merit in having an opposition.

Bipartisanship has its place, and there may well come a time when Mr Obama needs Republican support far more than he does now, in the honeymoon of his early weeks. The way his Democratic predecessor, Bill Clinton, sought, and used, Republican support to pass contentious welfare reforms offers a model. In principle, Mr Obama's desire to "reach across the aisle" is a plus. If, however, his economic package succeeds, where previous, Bush administration rescue measures failed, he and the Democrats will have built up political capital that is theirs and theirs alone. The first reaction of the markets, they will be gratified to see, was positive.

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