Reach Out

by digby

It would appear people are extremely happy that Obama hit it out of the park yesterday in his appearance at the Republican retreat yesterday, so I'm in a minority of those who think it wasn't all that. It's not that I don't think he performed well. He always performs well. And he's smart as can be, so I expect him to be able to parry lugubrious misrepresentations from idiots without any trouble at all. We liberals love that stuff.

Certainly, it is a welcome thing if he was able to please his supporters because they have been sorely disappointed lately and they deserved something to cheer about so I don't mean to rain on anyone's parade. Morale is important and if he made people feel charged up that's all to the good.

However, I remain concerned that the message is not as clear to the rest of the country as his supporters think it was. ("Don't mess with Obama.") I watched Clinton do this type of thing over and over again and it didn't change the dynamic at all. He was personally successful, but liberal ideology was degraded every time he conceded something like "I think we raised taxes too much" or "the era of big government is over." People loved his ability to out talk his accusers (in his case it was a real high wire act) but the agenda suffered greatly from his ceaseless efforts to cajole a psychotically hostile opposition into working with him. It resulted in passage of center right policies and his own impeachment. But then he didn't have a huge majority in congress either.

I suspect that average voters don't see Obama being persecuted as Clinton was, or subject to non-stop calumny by a rabid Republican majority. The Republicans aren't doing anything (and that's the problem.) I think people see Obama conceding that he hasn't been bipartisan enough and that he intends to keep trying. And that will never be a winner for our side because all the Republicans have to do is continue to obstruct to prove him a failure.

The Washington Post characterized the meeting in typical Goldilocks fashion:

Rarely has there been such an encounter between a president and the opposition party and certainly never on national television. It was the antithesis of the kind of snarling exchanges that often pass for political dialogue, whether between strategists in the two parties, candidates in the heat of a campaign or on the worst of cable television.

Nothing is likely to change overnight. "The main benefit is that greater interaction builds a measure of trust between the president and congressional Republicans," said John Fortier of the American Enterprise Institute. "Trust opens up possibilities for collaboration on some future issue with a more bipartisan character. It also builds trust, which might come in handy if there is a different future political dynamic, like narrower Democratic majorities after the midterm election, or even possibly GOP control of one house."

In the short run, there was plenty of scorekeeping by partisans -- and reason for both sides to feel good about what happened at the House GOP retreat in Baltimore.

For Obama, who is trying to reestablish his standing with the American people after a difficult first year in office, it was the opportunity to rebut his opponents' criticisms while prodding them to abandon their rigid opposition to his major initiatives and begin to cooperate. White House officials were ecstatic with his performance.

For House Republicans, it meant having the president acknowledge on national television that they have ideas of their own. The office of House Minority Leader John Boehner (Ohio) issued a release Saturday morning that said, in part, "The president himself helped put to rest once and for all baseless claims by members of his own administration that Republicans are the 'party of no.' "

Ultimately, the event may have been most beneficial for Obama, who badly needs a boost. He has emerged as the most polarizing first-year president in history. In that year, unemployment hit 10 percent, his health-care initiative failed to pass the Congress, his poll numbers eroded, independents deserted the Democrats in major statewide elections and some members of his party hit the panic button after Republican Scott Brown won the special Senate election in Massachusetts.

On Friday, however, Obama reminded his opponents of the singular power of the presidency, delivering a performance that easily eclipsed his State of the Union address. He was knowledgeable about GOP counterproposals. He was robust in his rebuttals without being peevish. He may not have won over his conservative critics, who snickered when he said he was not an ideologue, but he was able, repeatedly, to sound the call for bipartisanship and to challenge the opposition to help lower temperatures.

The Post saw the meeting as a welcome sign that the president was a powerful politician bent on using the bully pulpit to force bipartisanship. Unfortunately, they are not sure that Democrats have gotten their marching orders:

Obama's performance cheered Democrats primarily because they believe he bested the Republicans, not because he advanced the cause of bipartisanship.

Given that, further efforts to reach across the aisle may prove elusive. Asked what other confidence building measures might be offered, a White House official demurred. "I don't know the answer to that off the top of my head," he said. "One of the most important things is to continue the dialogue. It's hard to go beyond dialogue if you can't even have dialogue."

That will be the next test for Obama and congressional leaders in both parties.

If the dialog is the message then perhaps the Post is right --- he's using the bully pulpit to promote his bipartisan intentions. But given that there's a snowball's chance in hell that the Republicans would behave in a bipartisan manner even if Obama agreed to completely eliminate the capital gains tax, I'm not sure validating their good faith gets us anywhere.

If all this only means that Democrats will continue to move further right in order to reach across the aisle then I don't suppose it hurts anything --- they are already stretching themselves into pretzels to get there. But if the Republicans continue to successfully obstruct and then criticize Obama for failing to achieve his promise of bipartisanship, I think it exacerbates the problems we already have coming up in November. I suppose the American people may see through their ruse, but I think it might be just a little bit too complicated: they just see Obama unable to achieve bipartisan agreement with people he repeatedly portrays as rational actors. Therefore, he is weak and the Democratic agenda isn't mainstream.

I'm happy to be wrong about this and hope fervently that this interaction really did create a whole new dynamic in Washington. At the very least, Obama got to answer his knuckle headed critics so there is some satisfaction in that. But my intuition tells me that it won't change anything and could make things worse in the long run if Obama further backs himself into the bipartisan corner.