With the Senate on track to pass its version of the economic stimulus legislation, President Obama is widely expected to win final Congressional approval of the plan soon, and thus make good on an assortment of his campaign promises. But in the process, he is confronting the impediments to his most ambitious pledge: to end the capital’s partisan warfare.
Mr. Obama has been frustrated by an array of forces, from an often bitter and personal history of partisanship on Capitol Hill to the near-extinction of Republican moderates in the House to the deep ideological gulf between the parties on economic policy. And as his aspiration of putting aside petty politics has met the necessity of winning legislative votes — no more than two or three Senate Republicans are expected to support him, which is two or three more than did so in the House — he has gone through a public evolution that has left him showing sharper edges when it comes to the ways of Washington.
Frustrated that debate over the bill was being dominated by Republicans’ criticism, and that his overtures had yielded little in the way of support from across the aisle, the president who began the week hosting Republicans for a Super Bowl party had by Friday switched to publicly pressuring them, and rallying fellow Democrats, with a hard-line message about his unwillingness to compromise his priorities.
Mr. Obama seized on Friday’s worse-than-expected jobless numbers to criticize the Senate impasse as Republicans withheld the few votes he needs.
“It is inexcusable and irresponsible to get bogged down in distraction and delay while millions of Americans are being put out of work,” he said. Americans, he added, did not want lawmakers “to turn back to the same tried and failed approaches that were rejected in the last election.”
His comments came on Day 3 of Mr. Obama’s counteroffensive. As the Senate debated the package this week, he initially stayed above the fray, giving Republicans leeway to add tax breaks and hoping their support for the overall plan would follow. When it did not, he began speaking out on Wednesday, even as he privately kept reaching out to a few Republicans: including, unsuccessfully, Senator John McCain of Arizona.
'Long process of building trust'
White House aides say that Mr. Obama will continue reaching out, but that bipartisanship should not be measured simply by how many Republican votes the final product gets. The president is “not alarmed” by the dearth of Republican support so far, said Daniel H. Pfeiffer, the deputy White House communications director. “There’s a long process of building trust here.”
That process inevitably raised questions of whether Mr. Obama’s reaching out was more style than substance. He has hosted individual Republicans at the White House for cocktails and talks in the Oval Office, and last week made his first trip to the Capitol as president to meet with all House and Senate Republicans, overtures that won him points for style.
But the president made plain from the start that he would go only so far in altering an economic plan that embodies much of the agenda that helped get him elected. He told House Republicans, for example, that he would not back down from his proposal that a middle-class tax credit should also go to workers who earn too little to pay income taxes but who do pay payroll taxes. Most Republicans oppose that.
Mr. Obama has made some substantive concessions. He called for more tax cuts than many Democrats favored, and agreed to Republicans’ proposals for others: adjusting the alternative minimum tax, letting ailing companies deduct current losses against past years’ profits, giving a $15,000 tax credit to people who buy homes. He also pressed Congressional Democrats to delete some provisions after Republicans mocked them.
“His problem is not his administration. It is the institutional forces around here that have been built up over the years,” Senator Judd Gregg, Republican of New Hampshire, said before Mr. Obama chose him to be commerce secretary.
Those forces are several. First, while Mr. Obama is a relative novice to Washington, Democrats and Republicans in Congress have memories of partisan wars going back to Ronald Reagan’s presidency. Partisan habits in Congress are hard to break, and perhaps impossible in the House given its makeup.
House Democrats: 'I told you so'
Already, House Democrats are becoming increasingly grudging in their acquiescence toward Mr. Obama’s outreach, underscoring the balancing act the president faces. He must make concessions to Republicans without angering Democrats not only in Congress but also among bloggers and grass-roots groups that worked so hard for his election.
When not a single Republican voted for the House package last week, House Democrats basically told administration officials, “I told you so.” Both chambers have fewer of the centrist Republicans that typically cut deals, a consequence of Democrats’ election gains in 2006 and 2008. In the Senate, many Republicans are recent House graduates, more ideologically conservative than the Republicans they replaced and schooled in the House’s more confrontational ways.
After eight years under President George W. Bush, six of them with Republicans in control of Congress, Democrats have pent-up demands for domestic spending that they believe the election validated. Republicans, for their part, interpreted their defeats as a sign that they were not conservative enough in opposing spending and pushing tax cuts.
“In the end, the Republicans will decide based on politics alone, and he might not get very far,” Robert D. Reischauer, president of the Urban Institute, a Washington research group, said of Mr. Obama. “But I think he’s making a significant impression with the American public that he is following through on his promise to try and be as bipartisan as he can.”
This article, "," first appeared in The New York Times.