Dana Milbank
Opinion writer February 27, 2012

“We’re not going to agree on every single issue,” President Obama told governors at a black-tie dinner Sunday night, but “I’m confident that we’re going to be able to find more and more common ground going forward.”

The members of the National Governors Association returned to the White House on Monday morning for a working session with Obama. “The thing that connects all of us,” the president reminded them, “is that we know what it means to govern . . . and hopefully to forge some common ground.”

Dana Milbank writes about political theater in the nation’s capital. He joined the Post as a political reporter in 2000. View Archive

An hour after leaving the White House, Republican governors told Obama what he could do with his common ground.

“President Obama is clearly the most liberal president we’ve had,” Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal proclaimed at a news conference in the Mellon Auditorium arranged by the Republican Governors Association. “You’d literally have to go back to Jimmy Carter’s years in the White House, back in the 1970s, to match the liberal ideology, to match the incompetence.”

Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell proposed a remedy. “The president said three years ago that if he couldn’t turn this around in three years, then this would be a one-term proposition. Well, Republican governors are deciding it’s time to collect. It’s time for a new president.”

A third governor, Nikki Haley of South Carolina, piled on. “It was frustrating to see that he once again was finger-pointing at everyone else, and we don’t have that luxury,” she said, instructing the president: “Enough of the talk.”

Not long ago, the annual winter meeting of the National Governors Association was a time of bipartisan camaraderie, a respite from politics to discuss “best practices” in the various laboratories of democracy. But now even this island of cooperation has been flooded by the partisan tsunami.

On the eve of this year’s gathering, word came that Florida Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, had dropped his state’s membership in the NGA. Ohio left last year, and Idaho the previous year. Texas Gov. Rick Perry quit years earlier.

The publication Governors Journal reported that “close to a dozen governors failed to show up” for the event this year, “or only attended partisan meetings” arranged by the RGA and the Democratic Governors Association. The Democratic governors had their own no-Republicans-allowed session with Obama, while the RGA held four fundraising-related events (two dinners, a lunch and a breakfast) over the weekend.

Among the missing: New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat. Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, a Republican, did show up, but she managed to use the annual meeting to further her grudge match with Obama. The two recently had a highly visible argument on an airport tarmac. This time, Brewer skipped the White House dinner, citing “other commitments.”

At Monday morning’s last NGA session, 18 of the governors’ seats were empty. It’s a shame that so many cared so little about the event, because the NGA still has the potential to bridge ideological disagreements. At the final meeting, the governors moved so rapidly to adopt, unanimously, their various policies on economic development, natural resources, education and more that the NGA chairman, Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman (R), stalled for time. “I didn’t anticipate we’d get done with this quite this quickly,” he acknowledged.

At the White House, Obama made a rather strained effort to demonstrate his good fellowship with the governors; he identified Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley as “Jack O’Malley.” But the friendliness, feigned or not, didn’t last. Plans for a bipartisan news conference in the White House driveway fell apart when reporters instead chased down individual governors leaving the executive mansion. At the botched news conference, the few reporters remaining had no questions for the NGA chairman and vice chairman.

From that chaotic scene the action shifted to the Mellon Auditorium, where Republican governors offered their thoughts on Obama.

McDonnell, dismissing the recent drop in unemployment (“it’s a couple of months — that doesn’t make a trend”), accused the president of the “largest expansion of the federal government in American history” and demanded of Obama: “Don’t make excuses. Don’t finger-point. Lead.”

Jindal summarized the complaint: “He has failed when it comes to his tax policy, his spending policy, his borrowing policy, his energy policy, his health policy.” He added that Obama is “governing from the extreme left” and has not run “a competent presidency,” and “that’s why you’re going to see this administration be a one-term administration.”

Otherwise, it sounds as though they had a productive meeting.

For previous Washington Sketch columns, go to postopinions.com.