How to test Obama on bipartisanship

President Obama speaks after touring a transmissions plant in Kokomo, Ind., last week.
President Obama speaks after touring a transmissions plant in Kokomo, Ind., last week. (Mandel Ngan)
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.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2010 The Washington Post Company