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

By Dan Balz
Sunday, January 31, 2010; A02

Friday's encounter between President Obama and House Republicans proved to be riveting political theater. The question is whether it will be remembered as a moment that began to ease the tensions between the two parties -- or an asterisk in this era of polarized politics.

Obama and House Republicans delivered 90 minutes of sharp but civil give-and-take, a spirited debate on both the substantive differences that divide Republicans and Democrats and a frank discussion about the breakdown of government in the age of the permanent campaign.

Rarely has there been such an encounter between a president and the opposition party and certainly never on national television. It was the antithesis of the kind of snarling exchanges that often pass for political dialogue, whether between strategists in the two parties, candidates in the heat of a campaign or on the worst of cable television.

Nothing is likely to change overnight. "The main benefit is that greater interaction builds a measure of trust between the president and congressional Republicans," John Fortier of the American Enterprise Institute said. "Trust opens up possibilities for collaboration on some future issue with a more bipartisan character. It also builds trust, which might come in handy if there is a different future political dynamic, like narrower Democratic majorities after the midterm election, or even possibly GOP control of one house."

In the short run, there was plenty of scorekeeping by partisans -- and reason for both sides to feel good about what happened at the House GOP retreat in Baltimore.

For Obama, who is trying to reestablish his standing with the American people after a difficult first year in office, it was the opportunity to rebut his opponents' criticisms while prodding them to abandon their rigid opposition to his major initiatives and begin to cooperate. White House officials were ecstatic with his performance.

For House Republicans, it meant having the president acknowledge on national television that they have ideas of their own. The office of House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (Ohio) issued a release Saturday morning that said, in part, "The president himself helped put to rest once and for all baseless claims by members of his own administration that Republicans are the 'party of no.' "

Ultimately, the event may have been most beneficial for Obama, who badly needs a boost. He has emerged as the most polarizing first-year president in history. In that year, unemployment hit 10 percent, his health-care initiative failed to pass the Congress, his poll numbers eroded, independents deserted the Democrats in major statewide elections and some members of his party hit the panic button after Republican Scott Brown won the special Senate election in Massachusetts.

On Friday, however, Obama reminded his opponents of the singular power of the presidency, delivering a performance that easily eclipsed his State of the Union address. He was knowledgeable about GOP counterproposals. He was robust in his rebuttals without being peevish. He may not have won over his conservative critics, who snickered when he said he was not an ideologue, but he was able, repeatedly, to sound the call for bipartisanship and to challenge the opposition to help lower temperatures.

Ross Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University, said the message Obama delivered in Baltimore was consistent with one of the broad themes of his presidential campaign and therefore likely to enhance his standing with the public. "If the polls are correct -- and they are certainly consistent -- that Americans want a cease-fire if not a full-fledged truce, the event boosted his stock as a peacemaker," he said.

Obama's appearance before the House Republican policy retreat was part of a White House strategy that began with the State of the Union, designed to reconnect him with voters who have grown skeptical of his agenda and to identify himself with the anger that many Americans are expressing toward the way Washington is working.

The best indication that Republicans realized Obama had helped himself came late Friday. Initial reactions to the president by GOP House leaders had been generally civil. Then in the early evening, Boehner's office issued a release with the headline: "Rhetoric versus reality: President Obama repeats discredited talking points during dialogue with House GOP."

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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