By Justin Sink - 03/09/13 11:00 AM EST
President Obama is keeping opponents and allies off-balance in the first months of his second term in office.
Obama went left with his sweeping inaugural address, which rewarded the groups that helped elect him with siren calls to battle for gay marriage and against global warming.
A confrontational Obama said he would not negotiate with congressional Republicans on the debt ceiling and sought to put the blame on the GOP for the $85 billion sequester spending cuts.
This Obama reached out to Republicans — first with phone calls to GOP senators upset by a leak of the administration’s plans on immigration. The move won the White House points from Republican Sens. John McCain (Ariz.) and Marco Rubio (Fla.) who Obama will likely need to reach a deal.
More phone calls and invitations to meetings at the White House followed in a charm offensive capped, at least so far, by a dinner Wednesday night with a dozen Republican senators. At the dinner, Obama underscored his interest in reaching a deficit-reduction deal by reiterating a willingness to accept entitlement benefit cuts.
It was enough to leave Republicans spinning — and wondering what they should believe.
“This week we’ve gone 180 [degrees],” remarked Boehner, who Obama is seeking to circumvent by reaching out to rank-and-file members.
If Obama’s foes are off balance, so are some of his allies.
Liberals were thrilled with Obama’s inaugural speech and State of the Union address, which included a laundry list of promises to bring about a fairer society through gun control, immigration reform, more taxes on the wealthy and a higher minimum wage.
Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) warned the era of big liberalism was back.
The left was unnerved, however, by Wednesday night’s dinner and the new drive on deficit-reduction. The day of the dinner, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) held a press conference warning the president not to cut entitlement benefits.
The White House insists the sharp turn is a genuine attempt to take advantage of the first occasion in months that lawmakers do not face an imminent fiscal deadline.
“If you look at the cycles we’ve been through of these manufactured crises and these deadlines that have been set arbitrarily, not because of regular order but newly imposed deadlines — fiscal cliffs, debt ceiling drop-dead dates and sequester deadlines — they have forced a situation that required direct, highly charged negotiations with the leaders to try to reach a resolution before the deadline was hit,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said Thursday.
But Republicans, already wary of the Greeks-bearing-gifts potential of direct negotiations with the White House, remain skeptical of a president who just days ago was furiously campaigning against them.
They’re not sure what the president’s intentions are or where he’s going with his latest outreach campaign.
“A lot of Republicans are just looking for consistency,” said Republican strategist Ron Bonjean. “The president needs to prove it’s a change of political philosophy. If this is just a strategy that goes away in the next few weeks, it’s clear it’s not much more than a media play.”
Republicans are also keenly aware that the president has seen his poll numbers slip in recent weeks and is partially reacting to complaints he has not done enough to engage with Congress.
“The GOP is frustrated and exhausted,” said Republican strategist Ford O’Connell. “They feel burned by the fiscal cliff deal. They know his poll numbers are dropping, but still haven’t seen Obama yet sticking his neck out there.”
Democrats on Capitol Hill aren’t positive where the president is coming from either and are similarly off-balance.
On Friday, White House spokesman Josh Earnest — pressed about a report that Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio) had expressed concern Democrats were looped out of debt negotiations — said Obama would do more to discuss his legislative agenda with his allies in Congress in the coming days.
The hope for Obama is that his surprising and unexpected outreach efforts can shake up — and ultimately bypass — the predictable gridlock that has defined the past two years.
Keeping lawmakers somewhat off balance could work to Obama’s advantage.
"The president certainly remains committed to preserving an open line of communication with rank-and-file Democrats and Republicans who are interested in working with him," Earnest said, adding that the White House was "not naive about" the complexities of the legislative process.
--This report was updated at 10:44 a.m.