Amid skepticism, Obama reaches out to Republicans

President Obama will meet Friday with House Republicans during their annual retreat. It's a symbolic display of bipartianship, but will it make a difference?

Charles Dharapak/AP
President Barack Obama speaks at a town hall style meeting at the University of Tampa's Bob Martinez Sports Center in Tampa, Fla., on Thursday.
Larry Downing/Reuters
President Obama is in Florida for the House Republicans' annual retreat.

A day after President Obama’s first State of the Union address, members of Congress were pretty pessimistic about the president’s call for more bipartisanship.

After all, some have pointed out, if he was serious about not “relitigating the past,” as Mr. Obama himself put it, why did he do precisely that – reminding his audience that the messes he is still grappling with (severe recession, a near collapse of the financial system, two wars, deep debt) were in place when he took office. He didn’t need to point out that it was a Republican president, George W. Bush, who bequeathed him these problems.

But Obama is pressing on, heading off to Baltimore on Friday to talk jobs and then drop by the House Republicans’ annual retreat, where he will make a speech and answer questions privately. Even if nothing comes of the interaction, he’s not wasting his time, some analysts say.

“It is a visible, symbolically important display of his willingness to reach out,” says Bruce Buchanan, a political scientist at the University of Texas, Austin. “I think that does matter to some people, especially those who are fed up with polarization and the snarkiness of the debate sometimes."

It may end up mattering more to an increasingly disillusioned public than to the House Republicans, who, under the current state of affairs, could be on the verge of big gains in the fall midterms.

“But,” Mr. Buchanan adds, “there’s always the possibility that some person in the room will be touched or reached through a gesture like [Obama’s visit].”

GOP ready to share ideas

Republican House leaders have put out statements of goodwill in advance of Obama’s speech. They say they have plenty of ideas to share, be they on the economy, healthcare, debt reduction, or energy.

But at least one longtime Washington hand doesn’t see much percentage in Obama’s effort, based on the experience of the past year.

Last February, “when he was up and they were down, he got not one vote on the stimulus,” says Stephen Hess, a Brookings Institution scholar and veteran of multiple White Houses going back to President Eisenhower. “Now that he’s down and they are up, why does he think somehow that they’re going to come around? Unless of course he really is offering them something – and he really wasn’t [in the State of the Union address].”

'Let me know'

On Wednesday night, Obama reached out, in a way, suggesting that if anyone from either party has a better approach to the problems in the healthcare system, “let me know.” But everyone in the House chamber knew that the Republicans have put out ideas the Democrats have long rejected, starting with tort reform to clamp down on medical malpractice lawsuits.

On Thursday, at a town hall in Tampa, Fla., Obama repeated the offer. On every agenda item, “my door remains open” to ideas from both sides, he said.

Still, says Mr. Hess, “there’s a degree to which skepticism is in order on this.”

And even as Obama once again talks up cooperation, business as usual grinds on. On Thursday, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee sent out a press release highlighting a story from the Baltimore Sun reporting that the House Republican retreat is being underwritten by the Congressional Institute, a nonprofit organization that has sponsored similar retreats in the past – and has allowed high-priced lobbyists to mingle with the lawmakers.


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