The gloves are off.
President Barack Obama made a brief effort to sound bipartisan last week, saying he still hoped to find some ideas that both parties can embrace.
But the affability was mostly tactical, and so were the professions of hope. The reigning emotion at the White House has been frustration — frustration that Obama’s mandate for change has eroded and that Republicans have been so successful in mounting an effective opposition.
The message from Obama’s aides, who don’t labor under their boss’ obligation to sound charitable, has been blunt and bitter: no more Mr. Nice Guy.
When Obama met with House Republicans at their retreat in Baltimore on Friday, the change was apparent. Though he made a polite bow toward what he called “the value of a loyal opposition,” he quickly moved on to accusing his hosts, on camera, of indulging in “the politics of no.”
Obama’s proclaimed goal of bipartisanship was always a long shot.
It never meant meeting the GOP all the way in the middle; he hoped his popularity could detach a few moderate Republicans and help him enact big changes. Instead, sharpening partisanship on both sides has eliminated the middle.
By last week, bipartisanship was no longer an aspiration; it was a cudgel.
“I want the Republicans off of the sidelines,” the president said in Florida on Thursday. “I want them working with us to solve problems facing working families, not to score points. … I don’t want gridlock.”
The Republicans don’t think they’ve been on the sidelines, of course. They’ve been in the middle of the scrum, bringing Obama’s offensive game to a halt.
House Republican Whip Eric Cantor, R-Va., says the matter goes beyond mere partisanship. “People in this country are very dissatisfied with the direction that this administration is taking this country,” he said. “We’re not voting no for political expediency. We’ve got our principles, and we’re going to stand up and defend those.”
In a conversation with journalists, Obama’s chief political strategist, David Axelrod, was blunt about what Republicans can expect if they don’t find a way to compromise.
“We are going to very visibly seek their support moving forward, and we will shine a bright light on them when they don’t,” he said. “If they want to block everything … they will be held to account.”
Axelrod accused the GOP of “rooting for failure.”
“They made a decision they were going to sit it out and hope that we failed — that the country failed,” he said.
Until now, he suggested, Obama has been too gentle. “They didn’t pay enough of a price for what was a determined strategy not to work with us,” he said.
Now, “they either work with us or they have to pay the price for working against us.”
But is there a real price Obama can exact?
Republicans in Congress say the politics of confrontation have worked out pretty well for them. And even Obama noted that they may have gone too far to turn back. How can they start making deals with a president they’ve been saying will destroy America?
Both sides are in campaign mode. And when Obama updated his agenda in the State of the Union address on Wednesday, it was a campaign platform, stripped down to job creation, deficit reduction and healthcare.
On jobs, he sought to entice Republican votes by proposing tax breaks for small businesses, a measure conservatives embrace. But the GOP has already declared its opposition to big-ticket jobs bills like the $154 billion package the House passed last month. And small-bore jobs bills won’t solve the Democrats’ biggest problem: the fact that the giant $787 billion stimulus they passed in February didn’t stop unemployment from rising beyond 10 percent.
On deficit reduction, the two parties have battled to a messy draw, with an odd coalition of Republicans and Democrats blocking a bill that would have set up a powerful bipartisan budget commission. Obama proposed a freeze on most domestic programs beginning next year, mostly to show that he’s serious about controlling spending someday. The Democrats’ main aim is to get swing voters to stop worrying about deficits for a while — because it’s an issue on which Republicans normally have an advantage.
That leaves healthcare, which Obama expected to be the historic achievement of his first year but is now being treated by both parties as a troublesome stepchild.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., says she can still get a bill through the House if the Senate agrees to a list of changes, centering mostly on how the new program would be paid for. And it could be done through a budget reconciliation measure that only needs 51 votes in the Senate, not the 60-vote threshold that has bedeviled Majority Leader Harry Reid.
But the differences between the two versions of the bill are not trivial. Reid hasn’t yet corralled the 51 votes he needs, and it won’t help that polls show him likely to lose his own seat in November.
To bring this patient back to life, Reid is going to need more hands-on help from Obama than he’s had so far _ and even then, the bill may die.
At the White House last week, Axelrod sounded as if he were preparing talking points for a defeat.
“The country needs to know that we tried to do it, that we reached out, that we tried that opportunity,” he said. If the effort fails, he said, he wants to make sure the blame falls on Republicans, not on the failures of disorderly Democrats. “It has to be on them; it’s not going to be on us.”
Obama hopes to win his popular mandate back by running against the congressional minority, putting their flaws in the spotlight instead of his own.
It won’t be transformational. It won’t change the way Washington works. It won’t be pretty. But it’s a strategy.