President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden are settling into a good-cop, bad-cop routine. Biden supplies empathy, negotiating skills, and comic relief. Obama is assertive, sometimes combative, clear about what he wants and when he wants it, and given to reminders that a) he won the election and b) polls show the public agrees with his agenda.
To Republicans, some of whom are coming to recognize that compromises are necessary and even sometimes in their political interest, it feels like Obama is kicking them when they are down. (See House Speaker John Boehner: Obama is trying to “annihilate” the GOP.) For the Kumbaya crowd, with whom I have some sympathy, the signs do not bode well for an outbreak of intimate bipartisan dinner parties at the White House, or regular presidential golf and basketball outings with Republican pals. A revival of the fabled Ronald Reagan-Tip O’Neill relationship--friends after 6 p.m.--is not in the offing between Obama and Boehner.
“We can do more” to cultivate relationships, conceded senior White House adviser Dan Pfeiffer, and said that it would happen. “But this idea that if the president just played golf with the speaker more often or broke bread with [Senate Republican Leader Mitch] McConnell more often, all of our problems would be solved, is a relic of an entirely different era.”
The White House doesn’t have much incentive to rejigger because, surprise, polls, by and large, show that a majority of Americans like this unapologetic second-term Obama. Six in 10 people viewed him favorably in one recent poll.
Obama’s job-approval rating in Gallup’s tracking poll stood Thursday at 53 percent, better than his 49 percent average during his first term, when he took office amid the hopes of a nation making history, then crashed on the rocks of a recession and sometimes seemed hapless in the teeth of ceaseless Republican attacks and opposition.
The positive polls come after plenty of public exposure to Obama 2.0, from his aggressive campaign to his forceful moves and language in recent weeks. Since he was reelected, the president has:
- Stuck with Chuck Hagel for Defense secretary (at least so far), despite risks that were underscored Thursday at a rocky confirmation hearing.
- Said he would refuse to negotiate over raising the debt ceiling--a stand that paid off, with Republicans giving in and Congress approving a three-month reprieve Thursday.
- Renominated temporary appointee Richard Cordray to lead the controversial Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
- Announced a comprehensive package of gun-control measures at an event striking for the contrast between Biden’s emotional remarks about courage, heartbreak, and loss, and Obama’s practical focus on the nuts and bolts of proposals he said Congress needs to pass.
- Given lawmakers an ultimatum on immigration: Figure out a comprehensive reform bill fast, or I’ll send up my own version.
- Delivered an Inaugural Address calling for action on gay rights, immigration reform, gun control, climate change, and income inequality.
The Obama of the Illinois Senate and the U.S. Senate was a schmoozer and a consensus-builder. He played poker with lobbyists in Springfield, The New York Times reported, and learned to play golf because, a friend told the newspaper, “an awful lot happens on the golf course.” In Washington, he partnered with Republican Sens. Tom Coburn on transparency issues and Richard Lugar on nuclear issues. That man is gone.
And much as some in Washington might yearn for the second coming of Abraham Lincoln, exquisitely attuned to the needs and foibles of every lawmaker on Capitol Hill and ready to use that knowledge to get his way, Obama is not that man, either. He doesn’t have the right personality, nor do presidents these days have the kinds of tools that Lincoln exploited. They can’t trade earmarks for votes, much less jobs for votes.
In any case, a full-scale charm offensive probably wouldn’t change much at this point in Washington. Some Republicans say it will be difficult to impossible for them to trust Obama. (His public statements since the election--particularly his Jan. 14 lecture to Congress about paying its bills--have been like “fingernails on the chalkboard,” a top strategist told me.) Democrats are equally inclined toward pessimism. “If people won’t compromise, schmoozing doesn’t matter,” says pollster Mark Mellman. “There are larger forces at work here than just the interpersonal relationships.”
Let’s stipulate that there’s deep mistrust and an even deeper ideological chasm between Republicans and Democrats, and neither will be fixed with bowling parties. That doesn’t mean we are doomed to paralysis. In today’s Washington, the path to progress is cold politics: locating the intersection of self-interest for both parties. Immigration reform, which Republicans need badly, is one of those intersections. Gun research and background checks may be another. Taxes and spending are the stickiest issues, especially with this week’s GDP news foreshadowing an economic slowdown if the federal government makes sharp spending cutbacks. But there is room for compromise if both sides are convinced it’s in their interest.
Still, Republicans should be forewarned: They'll be dealing with a president who is feeling less patient and more empowered than he was in his first term and one who, for now, has the public in his corner.