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Suppose neither political party can solve America's problems

By David S. Broder
Sunday, November 28, 2010;

Suppose he is serious.

What if Barack Obama is telling the truth about his own beliefs when he says that neither party by itself can realistically hope to solve the challenges facing the United States?

Suppose he means it when he says that after the shellacking he and his fellow Democrats received in the midterm elections, he is ready and willing to hear the Republicans' ideas for dealing with jobs, taxes, energy and even nuclear weapons control.

I know that is supposing a lot - so much that it seems impossible. It's more like the script for a Broadway musical than a plausible plotline for Washington. But nonetheless, suppose that he is serious when he says, over and over, as he did on Thanksgiving Day, that if we want to "accelerate this recovery" and attack the backlog of lost jobs, "we won't do it as any one political party. We've got to do it as one people."

Should Republicans in their expanded ranks in Congress believe this? Perhaps one or two may remember that back in 2004, when Obama was free to speak his mind as the newly nominated Democratic candidate for senator from Illinois, he told the Democratic National Convention exactly the same thing.

In the normally partisan keynote address that launched him on the path to the White House, the young state legislator chose to address himself not to his fellow Democrats but to his fellow Americans. And to challenge to them to seek and find what they have in common, not simply what divides them.

Suppose there is a chance that he is serious - that after two years of trying to govern through one party, a party that held commanding majorities in the House and Senate but now has lost them, two years with landmark accomplishments but ultimate frustration of his hopes to change Washington, he has reverted to his original philosophy of governing.

What would Republicans do if they thought there was a chance of that being true?

They would do what Ronald Reagan always recommended in dealing with the Russians: Trust but verify.

They would test him. As they should.

When the leaders of the congressional Republicans meet this week with Obama at the White House bipartisan summit that the president proposed immediately after Election Day and that they asked to postpone, John Boehner and Mitch McConnell should be prepared with a set of challenges to Obama's seriousness.

They might start with an area that traditionally has been beyond politics: national security. The president has said it is a high priority for him to see the New START treaty with Russia ratified during this lame-duck session of Congress.

Jon Kyl, the Republican No. 2 in the Senate and its lead voice on nuclear policy, has raised a number of issues he says must be resolved before such approval is given. Kyl and Obama have been negotiating through intermediaries and have satisfied each other on most but not all points.

The Republicans could ask Obama to sit down directly with Kyl and see if they can compromise on the rest. That would be a fair first test of Obama's sincerity.

Another involves the soon-to-expire Bush tax cuts. Almost everyone agrees they should be renewed for the 98 percent of American families earning below $250,000 a year. The president opposes but Republicans support extending them also for the top 2 percent.

That is another issue on which Boehner and McConnell would be justified in challenging Obama and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner to negotiate with them and the top Republicans on the House Ways and Means and Senate Finance committees.

And they could ask that the newly confirmed administration budget chief, Jacob Lew, fresh from his experience as deputy secretary of state, be added to the mix, with hopes that his diplomatic skills can help find a way to close the gap.

Those would be two ways of testing whether Obama is serious, as I believe the evidence shows that he is.

Trust but verify. A good Republican approach.

davidbroder@washpost.com

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