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msnbc.com
updated 1/27/2009 7:19:51 AM ET 2009-01-27T12:19:51

President Barack Obama is launching his first diplomatic mission.

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It’s not overseas; it’s local, 1.6 miles east of the White House. The president is heading to the U.S. Capitol to meet privately first with House, then Senate, Republicans.

Did he have to make the trip? Not really. At the very least he could have insisted that the GOP members come “downtown.” Does he need GOP votes to pass his economic recovery plan? Probably not many: maybe four or five in the Senate if there is a filibuster.

But is he wise to make the gesture, one that his predecessor would never have dreamed of making?

Absolutely. If Obama wants to achieve a roaring, Canaveral-like lift off for his plan — and for his presidency — he needs to show that we have jettisoned “business as usual.” Bipartisan support is the way to do so.

It won’t be easy. It may not even be possible. I have been struck so far by the LACK of bipartisan goodwill on both sides. It’s only a week into the Obama presidency and things quickly seem to be degenerating into the same old, same old spats and thrusts.

In terms of tone, no one is blameless. Democrats, enjoying their largest majorities in decades, generally are in a my-way-or the-highway mood.

Republicans, in a defensive crouch, are without well-known elected leaders, leaving Rush Limbaugh with his Golden Microphone as the loudest and most famous voice.

Fizz-less Inside the Beltway
Even though the country is behind Obama as he starts — he has the highest approval ratings on record — the sense Inside the Beltway is rather fizz-less. There are a number of reasons. Obama essentially started governing the economy weeks ago, so his “honeymoon’ was over — at least among the political and chattering classes here in Washington — before he was even inaugurated.

And though the country is hurting, badly, the president is in the odd position of having to convince voters that the situation is about to get much, much worse. It’s a task F.D.R. didn’t have in 1933, when the unemployment rate was near 25 percent when he was sworn in.

Obama’s plans are themselves part of the problem: they are not sufficiently radical to blow up the familiar, paralyzing partisan axis of argument about the role and size of government in our lives.

It’s not so much a matter of the plan’s size — though some economists do think it’s not big enough — as it is the lack of imagination and shrewd strategy. In haste to spend, he and his aides in too many cases simply looked for programmatic spigots to turn on.

Lack of focus?
Rather than carefully watering each plant with care, Obama seems to be turning a fire hose on an entire desert. Even America doesn’t have enough money for that.

The lack of focus allows critics on the right to pick off one or another line item, stoking outrage among the tax-cut, spending-cut crowd.

And it is clear that Obama is going to ask for even more than the $825 billion he is asking for in his recovery plan, and the $350 billion in bank-salvage money that Congress authorized two weeks ago.

Video: 'Absolutely wrong' In the White House press briefing Monday, press secretary Robert Gibbs hinted that the administration may ask for another bank tranche beyond that.

Meanwhile, Republicans are wandering off in their own directions. The House GOP seems pretty unified against the recovery plan; Sen. Mitch McConnell, the GOP Senate leader, is “playing things extremely close to the vest,” as one Senate Democrat told me.

In the end it may not matter that much. In 1993, Bill Clinton passed his first and most important — and successful — tax bill without a single GOP vote in the House. The legislation is generally credited with having helped spur the Long Boom of the 1990s.

But in 1993, times weren’t as tough, and Clinton wasn’t proposing to change the way Washington worked. He just wanted to win, and he did.

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