The White House's New Tone

By Dan Froomkin
1:45 PM ET, 02/ 2/2009

Obama meets with Republican Vermont Governor Jim Douglas in the Oval Office on Monday. (AP Photo/Ron Edmonds)

Not too long ago, we had a president who didn't just defy and shun his political opponents, he refused to respond to their actual arguments and chose instead to refute his own preposterous misrepresentations of what they were saying.

Somewhat lost in the furious Washington debate over how many concessions President Obama should be making to Republicans to win their support for his stimulus package is a public recognition of just how much has changed in the last few weeks.

The victorious president may not be pursuing an agenda that pleases the losers, but he is spending time with them, listening to them, and taking them seriously. That's a big change from the way former President Bush treated Democrats.

Bipartisanship doesn't necessarily require that the ruling party defers to the minority. It could simply mean that both sides treat each other like grownups.

There are two paths Obama could take to win widespread bipartisan support for his package -- certainly among the general public, if not the highly polarized Congress. He could sacrifice provisions of the stimulus package that are important to him, but anathema to the political right. Or he could spend even more time addressing the American people, openly discussing the views of his critics, explaining why he disagrees, tracing his thinking and discussing why he made the choices he did.

AFP's Stephen Collinson captures the irony of the reaction to the House's passage -- without a single Republican vote -- of the stimulus bill last week: "After Barack Obama's first big win, the White House finds itself in the odd position of denying the new president has absorbed a power-sapping defeat."

Alec MacGillis and Paul Kane write in The Washington Post that "the White House did not view the rejection of Obama's initial bid at fostering bipartisanship as a stinging disappointment. Even as Obama was unable to pick up their votes, he was left with many Republicans praising his outreach. And judging by Obama's record, it is this tone of mutual respect that -- at least for now -- he may be after as much as actual votes on bills he could pass without significant GOP backing....

"The uncertainty over just how the new president defines bipartisanship traces back to the campaign trail. When Obama called for an end to 'broken and divided politics,' his Republican opponent, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), and others contended that there were few instances in Obama's career when he had made major concessions that upset fellow Democrats to reach agreement with Republicans.

"But this, said some who have worked with Obama, overlooked his intent. To Obama, they said, fixing 'broken politics' is less about making concessions just for the sake of finding common ground and more about elevating the debate -- replacing cynical gamesmanship and immature name-calling with intellectually honest arguments and respect for the other side's motives...

"The president himself emphasized tone more than the results of congressional roll calls last week. 'We're not going to get 100 percent agreement and we might not even get a 50 percent agreement, but I do think that people appreciate me walking them through my thought process,' he said. 'I hope that I communicated my sincere desire to get good ideas from everybody. And my attitude is that this is the first major piece of legislation that we've been working on the Hill and that over time some of these habits of consultation and mutual respect will take over. But old habits die hard.'"

And while Republicans are urging Obama to advocate on their behalf with Democratic congressional leaders, many Democrats don't get why they should concede on major points after their big victory in November. MacGillis and Kane write: "Already, many Democrats are upset with the inclusion in the stimulus package of $24 billion in business tax breaks that many economists doubt will provide a significant boost to the economy and that will reward some of the companies, such as banks and home builders, that fueled the housing bubble."

NBC's Matt Lauer interviewed Obama yesterday before the Super Bowl. Part of the interview was aired last night (see my earlier post.) But in more excerpts aired this morning, Lauer asked Obama if he was worried about his promise to build bipartisanship in Washington.

Obama replied: "Oh, listen, it's only been ten days. People have to recognize that it's going to take some time for trust to be built not only between Democrats and Republicans but between Congress and the White House, between the House and the Senate. You know, we've had a dysfunctional political system for a while now."

Obama even invited yet another Republican over to the White House this morning. Steven R. Hurst writes for the Associated Press: "Obama teamed up with Vermont Gov. Jim Douglas, the Republican vice chairman of the National Governors Association, as he sought bipartisan backing for the stimulus legislation....

"'If I were writing it, it might look at little different,' said Douglas, who sat at Obama's side in the Oval Office. 'But the essence of a recovery package is essential to get the nation's economy moving.'

"Douglas is among several GOP governors who are breaking with their Republican colleagues in Congress to ask for approval of the plan. Douglas is in Washington to lobby the Senate."

The conventional wisdom is still not satisfied. Nancy Gibbs writes for Time that "we're about to find out" if Obama is "all hat and no cattle" -- or whether he will perform "some highly public sacrifices of some Democratic sacred cows. And by so doing, shows who's really in charge of leading America out of these dark times."

She writes: "I can't help but wonder at the gap between the aggressively sensible things Obama is saying and the passive way that he is acting. And you get a sense that a lot of people in the audience, the experts and economists as well as the worried working classes, are starting to wonder as well."

Also see my latest Honeymoon Watch item.

But Washington Post opinion columnist E. J. Dionne Jr. takes a different view of the challenge ahead: "The coming week will test the strength of President Obama and the Democrats: Will they lose their nerve, or will they face down a rapidly forming conventional wisdom that would allow them to claim victory only if their economic stimulus package passes with substantial Republican support?...

"If achieving bipartisanship takes priority over the actual content of policy, Republicans are handed a powerful weapon. In theory, they can keep moving the bipartisan bar indefinitely. And each concession to their sensibilities threatens the solidarity in the president's own camp."

And Frank Rich writes in his New York Times opinion column: "The crisis is at least as grave as the one that confronted us — and, for a time, united us — after 9/11. Which is why the antics among Republicans on Capitol Hill seem so surreal. These are the same politicians who only yesterday smeared the patriotism of any dissenters from Bush's 'war on terror.' Where is their own patriotism now that economic terror is inflicting far more harm on their constituents than Saddam Hussein's nonexistent W.M.D.?...

"[T]he Obama honeymoon remains intact. The nightmare is that we have so irrelevant, clownish and childish an opposition party at a moment when America is in an all-hands-on-deck emergency that's as trying as war. To paraphrase a dictum that has been variously attributed to two of our most storied leaders in times of great challenge, Thomas Paine and George Patton, the Republicans should either lead, follow or get out of the grown-ups' way."

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