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.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
Senate leaders: A lot is at stake for Republican Mitch McConnell (above) and Democrat Harry Reid (below) as Congress and the White House sort out their relationship. The future of both political parties is in the balance as well, and the first big test could be the economic stimulus bill, the largest spending measure in United States history.
Ron Edmonds/AP

President Obama did not win a single Republican vote in the House of Representatives for his giant economic stimulus bill this week. So does that mean he wasted his time reaching out, to an unusual degree, to Republicans?

Not yet, anyway. By making very public overtures – traveling to Capitol Hill, inviting Republican members to the White House more than once, including to a cocktail party after Wednesday’s vote – he has already distinguished his administration sharply from those in recent memory, analysts say. And he’s begun work on the difficult task of remaking the highly partisan culture of Washington, as promised in his campaign.

Mr. Obama himself has stated that “old habits die hard,” and he seemed unperturbed, at least in public, that he failed to gain any Republican votes.

But his administration also knows that the House vote is just the opening act in a multi-act drama that will play out well into next month in this high-stakes effort to address a sinking economy.

“There’s definitely a longer-term strategy here,” with all this outreach by Obama, says Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. “And it’s going to be interesting to see in the end if the Republicans get nervous enough that the final vote is a different one.”

There are risks for all concerned.

Obama will ultimately sign some sort of stimulus legislation, given the Democrats’ strength in Congress. But if it fails to get the economy back on solid footing,

Obama will lose his luster with the public. Congressional Democrats, not all that popular as a group, will miss an opportunity to boost their image.

If most Republicans continue to vote “no,” they risk looking like naysayers at a time when their party is trying to regain its image as a party of ideas.

House Republicans did put forth their own stimulus plan, but with the knowledge that the Democratic plan was where the action is. House Republican leaders also telegraphed a disinterest in Obama’s overtures by instructing their members to vote no even before the president went to Capitol Hill on Tuesday.

The Democratic plan contains tax cuts - $275 billion worth, or about a third of the package – which Republicans like, in principle, though they object to the fact that some low-income workers who don’t pay income tax would get money back anyway.

They would also like the tax cuts to be bigger. And Republicans complain that the spending portion of the bill contains money for special projects that they believe will do little for the economy in the short term and will have questionable long-term economic benefit.

In a statement issued after the House vote, Obama betrayed no disappointment over the lack of Republican support, and signaled an openness to accommodating more GOP wishes.

“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.”

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.

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