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Obama to Republicans: Let’s Build Consensus Obama to Republicans: Let’s Build Consensus

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Cover Story

Obama to Republicans: Let’s Build Consensus

The president tells National Journal that he hears the message from voters, and will respond with a “sense of humility” about what Democrats can accomplish.

President Obama is already preparing shifts in style and substance to deal with a postelection landscape that will almost certainly be populated with more Republicans.

In an exclusive interview with National Journal on October 19, Obama said that Democrats will need to show an “appropriate sense of humility about what we can accomplish,” and he pledged to “spend more time building consensus.” The president will focus his agenda on a handful of issues that he believes Republicans might be willing to bargain over, particularly education, energy, and infrastructure.


And yet, Obama signaled that he would bend only so much to a Republican Party that appears poised to gain control of one or both chambers of Congress on November 2. The president called GOP plans to divert part of the Social Security payroll tax into private accounts “a nonstarter.” He insisted that Republicans must find a way to pay for extending tax cuts for the wealthy. And he virtually dared the GOP to target health insurance reforms that allow young adults to stay on their parents’ insurance plans and forbid insurance companies from denying coverage to people with preexisting conditions. “It turns out that those provisions are hugely popular,” Obama said, “and they’re the right thing to do.”

The president’s words suggested that if Republicans make the gains that now seem likely, the next two years in Washington could oscillate between compromise on some fronts and heated confrontation on others.

Obama looked fit, trim, and rested during the 45-minute Oval Office chat, although his hair is noticeably graying. The president didn’t hesitate when asked whether he intends to seek reelection. “Obviously, I haven’t made any formal decision,” he said, “but I feel like I’ve got a lot of work left to do.” Told that his answer sounded like a yes, Obama nodded, then flashed a red-carpet smile. “Take it as you will,” he said, laughing. He called “completely unfounded” reports that he might swap Vice President Joe Biden for Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on the 2012 ticket.


Sitting in a leather chair, beneath a painting of George Washington, with a bust of Martin Luther King Jr. over his right shoulder and a bust of Abraham Lincoln over his left, Obama didn’t mince words about the economy, warning, “It’s going to take us time to get out of the hole that we’re in.” But he spoke hopefully about the nation’s resilience, noting that America gets stronger each time it endures “these periods of self-reflection and questioning and political tumult.”

Speaking of tumult, Obama said that regardless of the election outcome, the voters will have spoken: “The most important message that will be sent by the American people is, we want people in Washington to act like grown-ups, cooperate, and start trying to solve problems instead of scoring political points.”

Excerpts From The Interview

NJ Absent any big change in policy, is there anything you see on the trajec-tory that would cause the economy, particularly jobs, to grow faster in the next year than they have been growing in the last year?

OBAMA Anybody who says they know exactly what the economy will do is probably overestimating their foresight. What we know is that we’re coming out of the worst financial crisis and the worst recession since the Great Depression. So we’ve suffered a significant body blow. Because of the steps we’ve taken, the economy is now growing again, and we’ve seen nine consecutive months of private-sector job growth. Businesses are profitable, and consumers are cautious but they’re spending.


If businesses got more confident about demand being out there to justify their investments, and in turn that led to slightly increased spending, which then created a virtuous cycle, then you could see significant improvement in 2011 over 2010.

But given the hole that we’re in, it would still take a significantly long time to make up for the 8 million jobs that have been lost, so that’s why we think it’s still important to take those extra measures that can improve demand, give small businesses more confidence in terms of their ability to get financing. The steps we took in terms of cutting capital-gains tax for start-ups, trying to accelerate business investment, allowing them to depreciate faster if they make those investments next year—those kinds of measures can potentially make a difference. [But] those headwinds are going to keep on blowing for some time to come.

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