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Sunday Take: The theater in the meeting between Obama and House Republicans

The president's advisers said the appearance was not a token exercise. "It was not a gesture," White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel said. "Our intention was not us-win-them-lose. I think he showed sincerity by going there."

Robert Gibbs, White House press secretary, said of Obama, "He genuinely believes that if you get away from all the pure political posturing, there should be enough stuff in each piece of legislation that can garner bipartisan support."

Yet White House officials see little in recent GOP behavior to suggest they may be ready to negotiate seriously across a table with the president. They see a party in which any move toward bipartisan cooperation with Obama by a GOP lawmaker could bring a primary challenge from the right. As evidence, they point to last week's Senate defeat of a proposal for a bipartisan commission to deal with the debt and deficit, in which several Republicans who at one time had co-sponsored the measure voted against it.

Others believe the White House must show greater humility. "Right now the administration reminds me of [former president George W.] Bush in year five, where they can't see what reality really is and refuse to admit mistakes and course correct," said Matthew Dowd, who was a senior campaign adviser to Bush and now is an independent analyst.

"I think open dialogue between the president and Republicans is positive -- and a lesson that the speaker could take from President Obama," Republican strategist Alex Vogel said. "But I don't think it's going to suddenly lead to broad agreement on a range of policy issues. Our fundamental problem is that we think he's wrong on what policies are best for America, not that we don't see him enough."

John Feehery, another GOP strategist, said, "I doubt this will be a regular occurrence -- too much risk in that for both sides." But, he added, " it has left an indelible impression on those who pay attention of perhaps how things will work when the GOP takes over in November."

That is a bullish forecast and much can happen between now and November to affect the fortunes of the two parties. But Friday's great debate came in the context of an election year that already has the two sides in campaign mode. Obama's performance cheered Democrats primarily because they believe he bested the Republicans, not because he advanced the cause of bipartisanship.

Given that, further efforts to reach across the aisle may prove elusive. Asked what other confidence building measures might be offered, a White House official demurred. "I don't know the answer to that off the top of my head," he said. "One of the most important things is to continue the dialogue. It's hard to go beyond dialogue if you can't even have dialogue."

That will be the next test for Obama and congressional leaders in both parties.

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