Obama Tests the Bully Pulpit

By Dan Froomkin
12:36 PM ET, 01/28/2009
Obama with business leaders at the White House this morning. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

(For an explanation of today's format change, please read this post.)

Spending time with them didn't seem to do the trick, so President Obama took to the bully pulpit this morning to increase the pressure on Congressional Republicans to support his stimulus plan.

Surrounding himself with top business leaders in the White House's Roosevelt Room, Obama said that everyone is going to need to make some compromises. He reminded Washington's elected leaders of their own culpability. And he said American workers and companies are hurting and "don't have a moment to spare." Here are his prepared remarks.

"[W]e must each do our share," he said. "Part of what led our economy to this perilous moment was a sense of irresponsibility that prevailed from Wall Street to Washington. That's why I called for a new era of responsibility in my Inaugural Address last week – an era where each of us chips in so that we can climb our way out of this crisis – executives and factory floor workers, educators and engineers, health care professionals and elected officials.

"As we discussed in our meeting a few minutes ago, corporate America will have to accept its own responsibilities to its workers and to the American public. But these executives also understand that without wise leadership in Washington, even the best-run businesses cannot do as well as they might. They understand that what makes an idea sound is not whether it's Democratic or Republican, but whether it makes good economic sense for their workers and companies...

"I know that some are skeptical of the size and scale of this recovery plan. I understand that skepticism, given some of the things that have happened in this town in the past. That's why this recovery plan will include unprecedented measures that will allow the American people to hold my Administration accountable."

Whether today's prodding and scolding will work any better than yesterday's wooing remains uncertain.

Shailagh Murray and Paul Kane write in The Washington Post that Obama yesterday "devoted nearly three hours to separate closed-door meetings with House and Senate Republicans, an investment that is unlikely to result in new support for the relief package but could help clear a path to final passage. Participants in the meetings said Obama conceded that both the House and Senate versions of the bill had been larded with Democratic spending priorities and sought to reassure GOP lawmakers that their concerns would receive consideration during final negotiations...

"But the final product is certain to fall well short of the Republican ideal of seeing a package heavy with tax breaks and light on new domestic spending, and both the White House and Democratic leaders worry that GOP lawmakers will use procedural tactics to stall a final vote as they seek to erode support for the plan with the public. The big Democratic majority in the House makes it all but certain the bill will pass the chamber today....

"Republicans praised Obama's candor and willingness to reach across the aisle, but said he conceded little ground and probably won few, if any, converts. He staunchly defended one of their least favorite provisions, a $500-per-individual tax credit that can be claimed by people who make too little to pay income taxes but currently pay payroll taxes. Republicans oppose the so-called refundable credits, arguing that they are a form of welfare.

"'Feel free to whack me over the head, because I probably will not compromise on that part,' Obama said of the refundability portion, according to a GOP participant who took notes during the House meeting. 'I will watch you on Fox News and feel bad about myself.'"

Meanwhile, there are competing views on just how transformative the current stimulus package is.

Alec MacGillis writes in The Washington Post that "some Democrats on Capitol Hill and other administration supporters are voicing a.... critique: that the plan may fall short in its broader goal of transforming the American economy over the long term....

"Their disappointment centers on the relatively small amount devoted to long-lasting infrastructure investments in favor of spending on a long list of government programs. While each serves a purpose, the critics say, they add up to less than the sum of their parts, and fall far short of the transformative New Deal-like vision many of them had entertained."

But Robert Pear writes in the New York Times that the Democrats are already using the bill as "a tool for rewriting the social contract with the poor, the uninsured and the unemployed, in ways they have long yearned to do...

"Altogether, the economic recovery bill would speed $127 billion over the next two and a half years to individuals and states for health care alone, a fact that has Republicans fuming that the stimulus package is a back door to universal health coverage."

And Sam Dillon writes in the New York Times: "The economic stimulus plan that Congress has scheduled for a vote on Wednesday would shower the nation's school districts, child care centers and university campuses with $150 billion in new federal spending, a vast two-year investment that would more than double the Department of Education's current budget."

Finally, it's worth noting that Obama's outreach yesterday was basically unprecedented.

Jeff Zeleny writes in the New York Times: "Presidents seldom travel to Capitol Hill. Protocol generally holds that Congressional leaders come to the White House — at the president's invitation — when it comes time to negotiate legislation. But there Mr. Obama was, standing before an array of microphones without a presidential seal anywhere in sight."

Carolyn Lochhead writes in the San Francisco Chronicle: "It's a rare sight in Washington to see the president walking the halls of the Congress, stopping to talk to reporters in the usual hallway haunts, and rarer still to see him meet with the opposition party to hear their ideas on the first big legislation of his presidency.

"Still stranger was this: The leaders of the out-of-power party, thrashed in two consecutive elections and the subject of all this presidential courting, told their members to vote against the president before he even arrived to hear their grievances.

"Hours before President Obama arrived Tuesday for GOP-only talks in the House and Senate on the $825 billion economic stimulus bill, House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio and his deputy, Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, told a closed-door meeting of Republicans to vote against the bill because it has too much government and will not revive the economy."

Nancy Benac writes for the Associated Press: "Obama may have been premature when, in his inaugural address, he proclaimed an end to 'the petty grievances, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics.'

"Presidents past have shown that in the hard realities of governing, it will be extremely difficult to deliver on his lofty sentiments."

But, as Benac notes: "Whatever the difficulty of the mission, Obama's early efforts to reach out and chart a new course on both domestic and foreign policy have been both substantive and symbolic.

"Since becoming president:

"* His first trip to Capitol Hill was to pay a visit not to Democrats in Congress but to opposition Republicans....

"* His first television interview went to Al-Arabiya, an Arabic-language satellite TV network....

"* His first cave-in was to dump money for family planning from his giant economic stimulus bill, representing a giveback to Republicans."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company