President Obama may have shucked his Mr. Cool persona in stumping for his jobs proposal, heatedly and repeatedly demanding that Congress “Pass this bill!” – aggressively taking his message straight to the district of House Republican Majority Leader Eric Cantor and the home state of Speaker John Boehner. The jacket’s off, the sleeves rolled up, the fists clenched tight. He’s (figuratively) grabbed them by the shirt front.
But over on the GOP side of the ring, the congressional leadership seems to be using judo’s “gentle way,” not Ultimate Fighting Championship® knock-out tactics.
In their letter to Obama the morning after his feisty address to a joint session of Congress, House Republican leaders were all sweetness and light.
“Dear Mr. President,” they began. “Thank you for your address … it is our desire to work with you to find common ground … we believe your ideas merit consideration … We share your desire for bipartisan cooperation.”
It was signed “Sincerely” – Sincerely! Little smiley faces or xoxoxo kisses would not have been inappropriate.
No, the Age of Aquarius has not dawned in Washington. Boehner and Cantor do not have flowers in their hair. Peace is not guiding the political planets nor is love steering the stars at either end of Pennsylvania Avenue. (For you millennials, the reference is to a line stolen from the 1967 musical “Hair.” Ask your parents, or check out the signature song here.)
But the initial reaction to Obama’s Thursday night speech from many grown-up Republicans (not counting the presidential hopefuls, who are not in a position to say anything laudatory about the man they want to unhorse), seemed more positive than negative.
"I heard plenty in the president's speech last night where I think that there is a lot of room for commonality, and we can get something done quickly," Mr. Cantor told CNN on Friday.
Or as the New York Times reported Saturday: “Republicans on Friday left the door open to several elements of the president’s $447 billion jobs package of tax cuts and spending programs, even those that just five weeks ago were met with vehement opposition.”
Obama may be way down in the polls, but Congress is even lower in public opinion. House members all face re-election next year, and they’ve heard loudly and clearly from constituents that unless the partisan fighting and gridlock stops it may be time for voters to send new hired help to Washington.
The common perception is that both parties are equally at fault. But in recent years at least, that may not be true.
He’s taken eight signal legislative achievements – four each for Obama and former president George W. Bush – and checked the roll call votes in House and Senate.
The bills he chose are (for Bush) the first tax cut, No Child Left Behind, the Iraq War vote, and the 2003 Medicare prescription-drug bill. The four Obama bills are the stimulus, the health-care vote, the Dodd-Frank financial reform, and the “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal.
“Here’s how it all adds up,” he writes. “Average Democratic Senate support for Bush: 45.5 percent. Average Democratic House support for Bush: 36.8 percent. Average combined Democratic support for Bush: 41.1 percent. Average Republican Senate support for Obama: 8.8 percent. Average Republican House support for Obama: 2.7 percent. Average combined Republican support for Obama: 5.75 percent.”
“Well now,” he concludes. “You see, both sides do do it. It just so happens that one side opposes the major proposals of the president from the other party seven times more intensely than the other side does it.”
So when Republican leaders talk about “finding common ground” and a “desire for bipartisan cooperation,” there’s some recent history to be considered. Which is why Obama is rolling up his sleeves and going straight to the voters.