News & Politics

When Will Obama Stop Trying to Work with Republicans?

Obama seems to be determined to give bipartisanship one more shot, hoping he can smooth out GOP obstruction to his agenda.

So what will it be, Mr. Punch-it-through, or Mr. Bipartisan? Obama seems to be determined to give bipartisanship one more shot, hoping that his reasonableness will trump Republican obstruction.

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Last week, right after his State of the Union Address, President Obama spent several hours with the Republicans at their Baltimore caucus retreat in his continuing, elusive quest for common ground. This week, he oscillated like a broken compass between bipartisan and partisan.

Obama's meeting with the House Republican Caucus was immediately followed by two sessions where he sounded almost truculent. Speaking to a town meeting in Nashua, New Hampshire, Obama insisted that the health bill was alive, with or without Republican support. "We're in the red zone," he insisted. "We've got to punch it through."

And at a fund-raising event for the Democratic National Committee, Obama demanded, "How can the Republicans on the Hill say, 'We're better off just blocking anything from happening?'" But the very same day, White House aides were discussing a new outreach effort to find areas of collaboration with Republicans.

Obama's strategists went back and forth between seeking a minimalist health bill that Republicans could support, and a Democrats-only strategy proposed by Speaker Nancy Pelosi to pre-negotiate changes to the Senate bill acceptable to House Democrats. The fixes could then be approved by both houses by a simple majority as part the budget process; and the House could use the Senate-passed bill as a vehicle to send directly to the president's desk without having to go back for sixty Senate votes.

Meanwhile, Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama, the ranking Republican on the Senate Banking Committee, advised Democratic Leader Harry Reid that he was placing a blanket hold on all seventy pending nominations requiring Senate confirmation. Shelby was using this threat as leverage against proposed budget cuts in Alabama military installations. Shelby was also not cooperating with Banking Chairman Dodd's efforts to craft a bipartisan financial reform bill, and Dodd announced that he was suspending the joint effort and would draft his own bill.

Also this week, Senate Republicans voted unanimously against raising the debt ceiling. If they had prevailed, they would have repudiated the sovereign debt of the United States.

How much more of this will it take before Obama and the Democrats grasp that bipartisanship is a dead letter, a lousy tactic, and a sign of presidential weakness?

At the national prayer breakfast Thursday, Obama quoted John F. Kennedy's line, "Civility is not a sign of weakness." Columnist Charles Blow, in Saturday's New York Times, hit that one out of the park: "Maybe not, but servility is."

As the White House agonized over whether to do health reform as weak bipartisan tokenism or a go-for-broke Democrats-only bill, a New York Times story quoted a senior Democratic aide comparing the Obama administration to a dithering driver in a traffic rotary unable to decide which road to take. "We're still going around the circle," said the aide. "At some point, you run out of gas."

At the DNC funding event, Obama gave a glimpse of his intended strategy.

He said:

"What I'd like to do is have a meeting whereby I am sitting with the Republicans, sitting with the Democrats, sitting with health care experts and let's just go through these bills -- their ideas, our ideas. Let's walk through them in a methodical way, so that the American people can see and compare what makes the most sense. And then I think that we have got to move forward on a vote. We have got to move forward on a vote."

What, exactly, does this mean? The idea of a genuinely bipartisan health bill is defunct. Since the Democratic Congressional Leadership does not have the stomach to go back and renegotiate from scratch, point by point with Senators Lieberman, Nelson, et al, the only way to get a bill is to follow Pelosi's strategy and pass a decent measure with 51 votes. But Obama seems wedded to the illusion that Republicans are actually interested in reasoning together -- as opposed to doing whatever they can to crush him.

Last night, Obama showed his hand. Speaking on CBS 60 Minutes, just before the Super Bowl, he said that he will hold a televised summit with the Republicans, after the February recess.

"If we can go, step by step, through a series of these issues and arrive at some agreements, then, procedurally, there's no reason why we can't do it a lot faster [than] the process took last year."

So the president is doubling down. It may be, as was said of Obama during the campaign, that he is playing chess while everyone else is playing checkers; that this is all a cleverly designed plan to go the last mile with the Republicans, smoke out their petty obstructionism for all to see, and then lead as a tough partisan.

Perhaps Barack Obama as Clark Kent is just biding his time before he at last comes out as Superman. If this works, I will be the first to cheer. But I can't imagine this summit producing a breakthrough, either of legislative compromise or of effective shaming.

For sheer comic relief, the most telling story of the week was Rahm Emanuel's apology. A Wall Street Journal reporter, Peter Wallsten, got hold of Jane Hamsher's classic blog post from August about Liberals in the Rahm's Veal Pen, did some more reporting, and quoted Emanuel as calling Democratic activists who were putting pressure on Blue Dogs (to support the Obama health plan!) as "fucking retarded."

So Rahm issued a rare apology -- to Tim Shriver, chief executive of the Special Olympics.

He apologized for using the "R-word," (he is beyond apology on the F-word) slurring people with developmental disabilities as "retards." And he will meet with outraged officials of that organization who have a campaign to discourage use of the R-word.

According to the folks at the Special Olympics:

"The meeting will be a face-to-face discussion with Rahm Emanuel about the suffering and pain of people with intellectual disabilities that is perpetuated by the use of the terms "retard" and "retarded" as well as the damage that can be done by the casual use of the R-word - even if it is not directed toward people with intellectual disabilities."

It's good to see Emanuel apologize at all. I wonder when he will apologize for slurring the party base.

Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect.