President Barack Obama's soft-sell pitches to Republicans haven't gotten him very far on his economic stimulus plan, so he's resorting to a sharper tone that is at odds with his vow to make Washington less partisan.
Stopping just short of a take-it-or-leave-it stand, Obama has mocked the notion that a stimulus bill shouldn't include huge spending. He has also defended earmarks as inevitable in such a package. And he's pointedly reminded Republicans about who won the November election.
The heightened rhetoric reflects White House frustration that Obama's earlier efforts, which included high-profile visits to House and Senate Republicans last month, yielded not a single House GOP vote for the legislation. In the Senate, Obama and his allies were battling Friday for just a handful of Republican votes to avoid a bill-stopping filibuster.
"He's going on offense," Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., said after listening to Obama's more combative speech Thursday at a House Democrats' retreat. "I think the president decided that it's time to lay out the facts to the American people, as he did going into the campaign, and take control of this debate."
"We can't sit back and just let them define us," Clyburn said.
Some Democrats believe Republicans have done just that by highlighting questionable items in the package and using them to depict it as a pork-laden extravagance that won't do enough to stimulate the economy quickly.
Obama and his Democratic allies agreed to kill a few such provisions, such as money to resod the National Mall, in hopes of winning some Republican senators' support. Around midweek, however, Obama began changing his tone. Democrats need not apologize or compromise further except on small items, he said.
Some critics, he said at Thursday's retreat, contend the bill "is full of pet projects. When was the last time that we saw a bill of this magnitude move out with no earmarks in it? Not one."
Ratcheting up the sarcasm, the president said: "So then you get the argument, 'well, this is not a stimulus bill, this is a spending bill.' What do you think a stimulus is?"
"That's the whole point," he said, as the audience hooted and applauded.
Obama warned Republicans not to "come to the table with the same tired arguments and worn ideas that helped to create this crisis." Americans, he said, "did not vote for the false theories of the past, and they didn't vote for phony arguments and petty politics."
"They sent us here to bring change," he said.
Congressional Democrats in close touch with the White House say Obama would welcome more Republican support for the stimulus bill but has lost patience and feels Republicans have slapped his open hand of friendship. White House officials now talk of trying to win just the few GOP Senate votes needed to cut off a filibuster and pass a bill that could be reconciled with the House version.
Both sides, it seems, are ready to let voters — and history — cast their judgments on a dispute where the two sides differ widely. Both sides say polls support their positions.
Backers of the Obama stimulus plan "haven't been listening to the American people, who clearly want major changes in this bill," said House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio.
House GOP Conference Chairman Mike Pence of Indiana said Friday he was disappointed that Obama had abandoned bipartisanship and "resorted to tough political rhetoric to pass the Democrats' so-called stimulus bill."
Democrats, however, say Boehner and Pence are trapped in an echo chamber of conservative talk shows and rock-ribbed Republican districts.
"There's a great disconnect between the way this plan is being perceived by the American people and the way it's being bantered about ... on the cable channels," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md.
While Obama is aiming harsher words at Republicans in general, he has kept the fight from becoming personal.
Asked Friday who Obama felt was being "petty," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs demurred, and simply cited the need to stop job losses.
But Gibbs did not quarrel with a description of Obama's new tone as a "fist-in-a-velvet-glove approach."
"The president's tone denotes the economic crisis that we face," Gibbs said.
Even some of Obama's strongest supporters don't know if the tougher tone will prove more effective than the softer tone.
"It's a work in progress," Rep. Xavier Becerra, D-Calif., said of the stimulus package, which must be reconciled by the House and Senate. With Obama continuing to make personal appeals to lawmakers, he said, "it's still cooking."