Governing well is not about hammering at the other side until it relents; it's about working hard to find whatever common ground is possible. Real consultation and negotiation between Congress and the White House is scarce, at least for now.
In the case of children's health legislation, members of Congress from both parties worked throughout the spring and summer to craft a bill that could become law with the president's signature, only to see it attacked by the president before they had even finished. White House aides contend that the Democratic majority is interested only in scoring political points in next year's elections; members of Congress counter that the White House has never truly engaged with them to create a measure the president could sign.
Meanwhile, as the appropriations process wears on, further stalemates are in the offing. Democrats may have won their override on the water projects bill, but that was low-hanging fruit, since even the most fiscally conservative member of Congress would have a hard time opposing money for a badly needed project back home. Future measures will be much harder to enact.
Facing the prospect of a continued standstill in Washington, both sides might want to take a step back and think about what running the country entails. It's possible that relations between this president and this Congress are so noxious they'll be unable to govern, but I'd like to suggest that with both sides' poll standings at record lows, it can't hurt to consider the American people's obvious hunger for progress.
The key point about governing and consultation between the two branches of government is that it has to be a sincere effort to consult and work with the other branch in the decision-making process.
It doesn't work for the president and his advisers to call the congressional leadership in, announce a decision that has already been made, and call that "consultation."
It's equally unproductive for a congressional majority to gamble that it will be rewarded in the court of electoral opinion for excluding White House input into its bills.
To bridge the differences, there must be a very strong will to succeed. What's needed is a process that creates an ongoing relationship - not just one created to deal with an immediate crisis - that builds trust among the various players, recognizes there are always alternatives in policy disputes, and allows key negotiators to sit down and talk long before decisions are made.
This works not just to both sides' political advantage, it usually produces better policy for the American people.
I'm reminded, for instance, of the intensive negotiations between Secretary of State George Marshall and Senator Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan that produced the Marshall Plan for the reconstruction of postwar Europe, despite the general state of suspicion between the Republican-held Congress and Democratic President Harry S Truman's White House.
Or President George H. W. Bush's efforts to convince a dubious Congress to allocate large amounts of financial aid to Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union after the fall of communism. Rather than try to bludgeon Congress into going along, he involved Congress in designing the aid programs. Or the long, tedious, contentious discussion on just about any major piece of legislation, from welfare reform to Medicare to aid to education, that has characterized our advances in public policy.
By its nature, Congress represents the American people's diversity and articulates their concerns. Faced with a Congress controlled by the opposition, a President cannot get what he wants by flexing his muscle alone, but he can knit together a majority to generate public support. And only rarely can Congress hope to enact policy over the President's veto; it cannot change the course of American policy without him.
So the two branches need to work with, not against, one another if they're to govern effectively. Consultation is hardly a confession of political weakness: It's a pragmatic recognition that in our system, the two branches need to talk to one another. If they can't, they produce only stalemate in Washington and public disgust in the country at large.
Surely, the President and the leadership in Congress want to leave a better legacy than that.
Lee Hamilton is director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.