Why President Obama’s charm offensive is headed for pressure testing — right away

March 11, 2013

President Obama ramped up his GOP charm offensive last week with lunch and dinner dates with congressional Republicans. But really, it was all just the appetizer.

Like The Flaming Lips once said: "The test begins ... now."


(A gas test gauge from Sioux Chef)

That's because this week could well reveal more than any period since the president was reelected about whether the White House and congressional Republicans can even begin to talk about working toward a landmark deal to rein in the nation's deficit or whether efforts will, once again, fall short.

And given both what's happened before and what's coming up, there are plenty of reasons to have more faith in the latter scenario -- at least for now.

Let's start with what's coming up this week. Obama is slated to meet with congressional Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill, following up on the more informal meetings he hosted last week. Given the extent to which relations between GOP leaders and Obama have deteriorated over the years, this is a rare occasion. And it's one that could mark the last best chance to kick-start talks. If post-meeting chatter is positive from both sides, it will bode well for bipartisanship. If not, the ship could be sunk before it leaves port.

In the House, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) will release his latest budget blueprint, which he previewed on Sunday. The plan will propose revamping Medicare and Medicaid and will aim to balance the budget in 10 years, a more ambitious benchmark than previous versions introduced by the House Budget Committee chairman. And it will propose to repeal Obama's health-care law, basically a futile aim given Democratic control of the Senate and White House.

What that all means is a proposal that is likely to reignite the Democratic pushback against Ryan's ideas that was ubiquitous in the 2012 campaign.

Senate Democrats are also set to release their budget blueprint, and a key question is whether their pitch can be reconciled with the House GOP plan in an agreement that is acceptable to both parties. But given how far apart the two proposals will likely begin -- a commitment to repeal the health-care law that the Supreme Court has upheld doesn't exactly scream bipartisanship -- that could be a very tall order.

Finally, Senate Democrats will introduce their own continuing resolution to fund the government through the rest of the fiscal year. The House passed its version last week. Congress has until late this month to come to terms on a funding agreement. And if they can't even do that, then, well, it goes without saying what it would suggest about the prospects of a longer-term budget deal.

All of which is enough reason for skepticism that real bipartisan accord can be reached. But there's more. Just look at what has -- or what hasn't -- happened in the past.

“I think he’s genuinely reaching out,” Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) said Sunday of Obama's outreach on NBC's “Meet The Press.” “But you know, you’ve got a lot of scabs and sores on people, and it’s going to take a while for that to heal.”

He wasn't kidding.

Rewind to 2011, and you'll find a previous attempt at a "grand bargain" over the deficit that Obama and House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) failed to reach.

Rewind to early 2013, and you'll find an agreement to avert the fiscal cliff that involved raising tax rates for the wealthiest Americans. But since that deal, Republican leaders have stood firm against any new attempts to raise taxes, while Democrats haven't let up on their call to raise new tax revenue. And on entitlements, a similar impasse can be found.

Ultimately, anything resembling a renewed "grand bargain" looks like it would require a "grand gesture" or "grand gestures" from one or both sides. A concession on entitlements from Democrats, a willingness to accept new tax revenue from Republicans -- these are the types of big moves we're talking about.

To be clear, these aren't impossibilities. But they are a long way from being realities, until further progress is made.

But that's why this week matters so much in the grand scheme of things. If the two parties are going to defy the odds, it will have to begin ... now.

Fixbits: 

Obama plans to nominate Thomas Perez for labor secretary. Perez is assistant attorney general for civil rights. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) doesn't approve.

Republicans are reserving judgment about Obama's charm offensive.

The president cracked wise about Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio's sip slip at Saturday night's Gridiron Club dinner.

Ryan has no designs on becoming House speaker.

Former Florida governor Jeb Bush (R) said Obama won reelection by "dividing the country."

He also said he's "in sync" with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) on immigration. And he compared political reporters to "crack addicts."

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) wrote that his marathon filibuster was "just the beginning."

New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, the early frontrunner to become the next mayor of New York, officially declared her candidacy on Sunday.

Must-reads:

"As momentum builds toward tax reform, lobbyists prepare for a fight" -- Jerry Markon, Washington Post

"Karzai chides U.S. during Hagel’s Afghanistan visit" -- Ernesto Londoño and Kevin Sieff, Washington Post

"For Biden chief of staff Bruce Reed, less is more" -- Josh Lederman, Associated Press

"The brothers Donilon: One’s boss is President Obama, the other’s could be pope" -- Jason Horowitz, Washington Post

"Dueling Budget Plans Help Define Both Parties" -- Nancy Cook, National Journal

"GOP looks for answers on polling" -- Alexander Burns, Politico

Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012.
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Sean Sullivan · March 10, 2013