Obama need not wait to change relations with Congress
It was toward the end of President Obama's riveting visit on Jan. 29 with the House Republicans in Baltimore -- a rare 90 minutes of candor on both sides that produced the most fascinating and revealing politics in memory -- when Rep. Peter Roskam of suburban Chicago was called on for a question.
"Oh, Peter is an old friend of mine," Obama said. "Peter and I have had many debates. . . . Peter and I did work together effectively on a whole host of issues."
As I learned on a visit to the congressman's Capitol Hill office last week, when Roskam moved from the Illinois House to the state Senate in 2000, he found Obama already serving there. They were both assigned to the Judiciary Committee and, after taking each other's measure in a sharp debate on health care, they collaborated on death penalty reform, ethics legislation and other issues.
"You took on some big things," Roskam reminded the president. "One of the keys was you rolled your sleeves up, you worked with the other party and ultimately you were able to make the deal." By contrast, he continued, over the past year House Republicans have felt that "they've really been stiff-armed by Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi. Now, I know you're not in charge of that chamber, but there really is this dynamic of, frankly, being shut out. . . . I think all of us want to hit the reset button on 2009. How do we move forward?"
This was the kind of straight-talk question that made the session at the GOP House retreat so special. Obama responded frankly and well. Rhetoric is a problem on both sides, he said, because "what we say about each other sometimes . . . boxes us in, in ways that make it difficult for us to work together. . . . So just a tone of civility instead of slash-and-burn would be helpful."
In hopes of improving communication, Obama promised to "bring Republican and Democratic leadership together on a more regular basis with me," and the first of those monthly meetings with Senate and House leaders of both parties is scheduled for this week.
And in response to Roskam's specific question, the president pledged to be "talking more about trade this year," which he did last week, though he still has not pushed Congress to ratify the trade agreements with Colombia, Panama and South Korea that were negotiated by his predecessor.
The session in Baltimore, which followed the shock of the Democrats losing the Kennedy seat in Massachusetts, has produced some signs of a changed tone in Washington. But to my surprise, Roskam told me that he has had no word from anyone in the White House since his overture to Obama.
This tells me that, even after Baltimore, the president and his people may not realize the degree to which Republican frustration with Pelosi's management of the House has created opportunities for Obama -- if he is willing to engage as directly as he did in his Illinois Senate days.
Roskam recounted to me the story of two of his own minor amendments to the health-care bill that were rejected by his Ways and Means Committee along with dozens of others he deemed reasonable and bipartisan. That is a common experience for Republicans and a source of grievance.
"It's really up to Obama," Roskam said. "He's at a crossroads. My question to him was not an admonition. It was an invitation" to govern differently in this second year.
Looking at the campaigns in Massachusetts and Illinois, the first two states to vote this year, it is clear as can be that voters are trying desperately to figure out how to change the dynamics of Washington. They will support candidates in either party who offer hope of stifling the poisonous partisanship and addressing the real-world problems of jobs, deficits and health care.
But Obama does not have to wait for the voters to change Congress -- which they will do, come November. He can, as his friend from Springfield days reminded him, start that change now by being himself.