By Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 8, 2009
Last month, House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) repeatedly excoriated House Democrats for what he considered flaws in the economic stimulus plan, rarely mentioning President Obama, one of the chief architects of the bill.
But as Congress considers a bill to fund federal agencies, legislation largely hashed out last year before Obama was elected, Boehner has shifted his aim from one end of Pennsylvania Avenue to the other.
"He is the president of United States; it takes the signature of the president for this to become law," Boehner said, referring to a provision that includes thousands of congressionally mandated projects, or earmarks, that Obama criticized during his campaign. "So the president ought to keep his campaign promise."
During the president's first few weeks in office, many congressional Republicans avoided sharp criticism of him, instead condemning Democratic congressional leaders, particularly House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), while praising Obama for reaching out to the GOP. But in the past week, Republicans have increasingly taken on Obama: criticizing a letter he wrote to Russian leaders asking for their help in stopping Iran from developing nuclear weapons, a move the GOP characterized as unwise; knocking his remark comparing the stock market's fluctuations to political polls; and denouncing his proposals to fix the economy that Republicans say amount to a federal "spending spree."
And with Obama looking to push his budget proposal through Congress over the next few weeks, the Republicans are promising to directly confront the new president on his proposals, even as party members acknowledge the risk of taking on a man whose favorability rating in a recent poll was 42 points higher than that of the Republican Party.
"There is no point in triangulation when it comes to his budget," Boehner told a group of his House members last week in a closed-door meeting, referring to the previous strategy of trying to isolate congressional Democrats from Obama. "It's the president's budget. His name is on it."
Republicans are on the offensive against the popular chief executive at a point when they lack a chief spokesman and remain divided among figures offering competing visions for the party's future, including radio personality Rush Limbaugh and Republican National Committee Chairman Michael S. Steele. But the party has unified around the theme of limiting increases in government spending.
"It's risky because the president is popular and because of his charisma," said Rep. Mark Souder (R-Ind.). "And when you don't have a single spokesman, it's hard to communicate. But there is a sharp philosophical divide."
GOP officials said they would avoid personal attacks against Obama. "It has to be about the policies," said Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.).
Obama spokesman Bill Burton said the White House is eager to work with Republicans and that bitter partisan politics have been rejected by the American people.
"We're looking to work with folks on both sides of the aisle," he said. "If someone wants to be constructive or has a good idea to share, we want to talk."
Some Republicans said they will look to work with Obama on issues on which they can reach agreement with him.
"There are lot of things he campaigned on we can agree with," said Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), the chief deputy whip for House Republicans, citing Obama's concerns about wasteful spending.
But on issues on which they disagree, Republicans say it makes more sense to contrast with Obama than Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.).
"People don't really know who Pelosi and Reid are," Souder said. "If people think the president is in charge, you have to at some point take him on. They're his ideas."
At the same time, Republicans are wary of appearing to be a party that simply opposes Obama. David Winston, a GOP strategist who advises House Republicans, said offering alternatives that voters like is crucial to any opposition strategy. He cited the GOP's success last summer in calling for expanded oil drilling to be part of any effort to reduce gas prices.
"When you ask the public, 'Which party do you have more confidence in to handle the issue of the economy?' and in the future they say Republicans, Republicans will be in good shape," Winston said. "Right now, public polling has Republicans trailing in that question."
Ron Bonjean, who was a spokesman for House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), said Republicans are smart to oppose Obama's economic vision, but he questioned whether they have found the right proposals to offer as alternatives.
"Are they also connecting with Americans who have serious financial anxiety?" he asked.
Party strategists said that while the stimulus opposition unified all but three Republicans in Congress, it was not clear that Republicans had articulated their alternative proposals, which focused on larger tax-cut provisions and less direct government spending.
Republicans have already lined up to oppose Obama's budget, but they acknowledge it will be hard to make it clear to the public that they have a vision beyond opposing the president.
"One of the challenges that is presented to the minority party is to get heard," Steele said last week on NBC's "Today" show. "We're going to keep pushing it and trying to make as much noise as we can in a positive direction."
And on some issues, Republicans might have trouble presenting a unified strategy because they do not agree internally. Although House Republicans have organized a group to produce an alternative to the health-care proposal Obama and congressional Democrats are working on, there are strong differences among Republicans on how to approach the issue.
Souder said Republican opposition will be helped if the details of some of Obama's proposals become unpopular as the public learns more about them.
"The advantage of being in the minority is the incumbent's position sometimes unifies the opposition," he said.