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Obama sets himself a high political bar

The economic stimulus bill is his first big test in replacing ‘old habits’ with less partisanship in Washington.

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“The plan now moves to the Senate, and I hope that we can continue to strengthen this plan before it gets to my desk,” Obama said. “But what we can’t do is drag our feet or allow the same partisan differences to get in our way.”

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Obama began by emphasizing the economic challenge ahead, noting the loss of 2.6 million jobs last year, and Monday’s announcement that some major employers were eliminating another 55,000 jobs. “This is a wake-up call to Washington that the American people need us to act and act immediately,” he said, an echo of President Roosevelt’s first inaugural, in which he called for “action and action now.”

On Capitol Hill, the total “no” vote by Republicans was seen more as a slap at Democratic House speaker Nancy Pelosi rather than Obama.

The president won praise for seeking more input on the content of the bill than the speaker did. Now that the Republicans have made their point, they may find that playing ball with Obama is more fruitful than continued stonewalling – another reason for Obama to continue his push to woo Republicans.

“Obama is likely to give a little bit at the edges,” says Bruce Buchanan, a presidential scholar at the University of Texas, Austin.

“He’s not going to give on the core stuff,” he says. “But they might have much more input than they could otherwise expect with the steamroller approach, which has been politics as usual.”

Another reason to surmise that Obama will keep wooing Republicans rather than get mad and give up is his cool demeanor.

“He has this steady temperament; he doesn’t seem to lose it very much,” notes Mr. Buchanan. “He might be able to sustain that style of operation, even when there is lots of disagreement. We’ll see.”

If Obama does manage to peel off some Republican support for a stimulus plan, that could bode well for his ability to woo Republicans on trickier legislation down the road – such as healthcare reform.

But not everyone in Washington sees a good reason for Republican members to play along with Obama.

Bruce Bartlett, a former Reagan administration Treasury official, offers his political analysis: “If this policy works, and the economy revives, no one’s going to remember that the Republicans voted against it. Nobody’s going to care.”

“If it fails,” he continues, “they can say I told you so. Even if it works moderately well, which is probably the best we can hope for, there’s bound to be some mistakes made, so the Republicans can again point their finger and say, Aha, we told you so.”

On Thursday, Obama got a break from the rigors of trying to woo Republicans in Congress when he signed his first piece of legislation as president, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act.

The law lengthens the period in which workers may sue for discrimination based on gender, race, national origin, or religion.
On that bill, five Republicans in the Senate and three in the House voted yes.