Phase Two: Obama Fights

Barack Obama’s posture toward recalcitrant Congressional Republicans took a sharp turn toward the confrontational on Thursday—and just in time.

The new president spent the last few weeks playing the role of magnanimous bipartisan leader, making public shows of outreach to Republicans and shying away from direct attacks. It won him a grand total of zero Republican votes in the House for his economic stimulus package.

On Thursday, with public opinion turning against the plan and emboldened Republican ratcheting up their hysteria, Obama called his G.O.P. critics out at a White House signing ceremony.

"In the past two days," he said, "I have heard criticisms of this plan that, frankly, echo the very same failed theories that helped lead us into this crisis in the first place. I reject these theories—and by the way, so did the American people when they went to the polls in November and voted resoundingly for change."

Many Democrats believe Obama should have been talking this way from the very beginning of his presidency, and that his cooperative posture before today has given his Republican opponents leverage and needlessly endangered the stimulus package. But this is a short-sighted view.

Yes, it’s true that forging a broad bipartisan coalition for the stimulus package was probably never in the cards. Republicans are enjoying playing the victim here, claiming that their good faith efforts at cooperation have been stymied by arrogant Congressional Democrats and a president who, in the words of South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham, "has been AWOL in providing leadership." But, as history shows, the minority party always plays this game. When it comes to a new president’s signature economic program, partisanship invariably prevails in Congress.

It was still worthwhile for Obama to make a show of reaching out to the G.O.P., however doomed this mission was. 

For one thing, it probably helped him with the (very, very few) Congressional Republicans who might actually be willing to work with him. There may not be any of them in the House, but the Senate is a different matter. As we are seeing right now, Obama and the Democrats still need Republican help in that chamber to reach 60 votes and kill a G.O.P.-led filibuster. And in the Senate, there are a few moderate Republicans willing to cooperate.

Obama’s public magnanimity these past few weeks probably made those few Republicans receptive to working with him, and we’re seeing the payoff: Maine Republicans Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe both met with Obama on Wednesday and indicated a willingness to support the plan if its price tag could be reduced by around $200 billion.

This is a lot—but maybe not that much. After all, the cost of the plan in the Senate version is more than $100 billion more expensive than the House version. And the $200 billion figure being pushed by Collins and Snowe may be for negotiating purposes; they may settle for less. A Senate compromise will contain some painful cuts—particularly, it appears, in the area of education spending—but its total cost probably will be right around the $819 billion level of the plan passed in the House last week. The support of Collins and Snowe should also shore up support from any wavering moderate Democrats, most notably Nebraska’s Ben Nelson.

Both for the stimulus package and future initiatives, a solid working relationship with the few moderate Republicans in the Senate is crucial for Obama. Had he come out swinging against the G.O.P. from day one, this would have been difficult to achieve.

And there was another reason for Obama’s early embrace of bipartisanship: It has positioned him ideally for the inevitable confrontation with Republicans that now seems to be unfolding.

To date, Congressional Republicans have wisely focused their attacks on their Democratic colleagues, and not the president himself. When, for instance, Obama made a personal visit to a House G.O.P. conference session, Republicans were effusive in their praise of his effort afterward—while also reiterating their opposition to the bill itself. In essence, they turned the stimulus package into the Congressional Democrats’ bill, not Obama’s bill. Under those terms, it was far easier to win public support.

But Obama’s public displays of bipartisanship, and his initial resistance to partisan warfare, have not gone unnoticed by the general public. He came to office promising to work with the opposition party, and he has now demonstrated, in a deliberately conspicuous way, that he meant it. Now, with Republicans (save for those few senators) refusing to give an inch, Obama can plunge himself into the debate with real moral authority.

He can reclaim the stimulus package as his own, and turn the debate over it into a contest between himself and the G.O.P.&mdsh;not the G.O.P. against Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid. And he can preface every criticism of the G.O.P.’s intransigence by reminding Americans how eager he’d been to reach across the aisle—and how he’d been rebuffed. Yes, Republicans (as Lindsey Graham showed on Thursday), will fight back, but right now, their popularity is no match for Obama’s. It’s a fight he will win any day.

Obama was right to pursue bipartisanship for the last few weeks. And he’s right to take the gloves off now. Phase Two: Obama Fights