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Obama budgeting his political capital

Party gains take a back seat for now, but bipartisan opportunities for the president-elect are not obvious
/ Source: National Journal

Barack Obama's spent his first few days as president-elect doing all he can to prove he's not the kind of guy to hold a grudge. Whether it's (potentially) putting Hillary Rodham Clinton in his Cabinet, reaching out to John McCain to help build coalitions in the Senate, or asking Senate Democrats to forgive Joe Lieberman's election transgressions, Obama's "can't we all just get along" strategy is a smart signal to a world weary of one-way diplomacy.

But once the inaugural bunting is taken down and the hard work begins, will the rhetoric match the reality?

Among the things Obama has going for him, one of the biggest is that he's very popular. The latest Diageo/Hotline poll (subscription), taken Nov. 6-9, showed Obama with a 65 percent approval rating, and 66 percent of voters (including 33 percent of Republicans) are "confident" that Obama will bring real change to D.C. Presidents like to boast about the political capital they have to spend. Obama's really got it.

How and when he chooses to use it, of course, will be the bigger test. Given the political realities Obama faces, it's no surprise that he has not waded into the Georgia Senate runoff election on behalf of Democrat Jim Martin. To do so would not only risk putting his coattails (or lack thereof) on display less than a month after his election, it would also signal to Republicans that he's more interested in creating a partisan Senate than working across the aisle. One thing you never heard from Obama on the campaign trail was the need for a 60-seat Democratic majority in the Senate.

It's not just Obama whom voters are holding to a high standard of bipartisanship. A recent Pew Research Center poll [PDF] indicated that 74 percent of voters, including 56 percent of Republicans, think GOP leaders should work with rather than stand up to Obama. Same goes for the majority party: Seventy-seven percent, including 76 percent of Democrats, said Democratic leaders in Congress should work with their GOP colleagues.

Another note of warning to ambitious congressional Democrats: Seventy-two percent of Democratic and Dem-leaning voters said they wanted to see Obama, not Congress, set the policy agenda.

But what does "working across the aisle" really mean? In the Senate, retirements and election losses have substantially reduced the number of Republican moderates. Olympia Snowe, Susan Collins, George Voinovich, Arlen Specter and, of course, McCain are the only obvious potential allies Obama will have on the GOP side. Of the 19 Republicans up in 2010, just six -- including Voinovich and Specter -- sit in states Obama won.

If Obama is counting on McCain to help broaden that coalition, it's worth asking why. After all, this is a guy who campaigned heavily on his "maverick-ness" and ranted against the corrupting influence of Washington insiders. Team player he was not. Even so, he, like Obama, ended the campaign with high approval ratings and has more political capital than your typical defeated nominee.

Obama's potential GOP allies in the House may be an even smaller bunch. There are only five Republicans who sit in districts that John Kerry won four years ago: Mike Castle (Del.-At Large), Mark Kirk (Ill.-10), Jim Gerlach (Pa.-06), Charlie Dent (Pa.-15) and Dave Reichert (Wash.-08). (Note: We are using 2004 stats since we won't have presidential vote by congressional district data for some time). Given Obama's strong showing in places like Neb.-02 (where GOP Rep. Lee Terry sits) and New Jersey (home to freshman Rep. Leonard Lance in N.J.-07), this list of Republicans sitting in putatively Democratic seats will grow -- but probably not by much.

For all the talk of bipartisanship, the reality is that there just aren't that many Republicans left to work with. Herding them may not be Obama's biggest problem.

Now, about corralling expectant Democrats ...