Lawmakers are less hopeful about Obama at start of second term

The mood on Capitol Hill on Monday was strikingly different from when President Obama was first sworn into office four years ago. 

Republican lawmakers said Monday that they feel less optimistic about President Obama’s second term than they did at the start of his first, a consequence of the escalating partisanship of the past four years. 

An influential Democrat, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Calif.) expressed doubt that Obama’s second term would leave behind the partisan stalemate that marked much of his first. 

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“The proof is always in the pudding. The words are the first part. In the next month or so we’ll find out whether the climate has changed. I would hope it has, because I think the American people look at a stagnant Congress and say, ‘A pox on both their houses.’ They don’t really differentiate. And we’re here to do the people’s business and I think we have to do it, debate it, take action on it, so hopefully that will happen,” Feinstein said.

Four years ago, Republicans were impressed with Obama, and some thought he could change Washington’s bitter political culture. Following a meeting with Obama in January of 2009, GOP leaders — including House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Va.) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) — praised the president’s bipartisanship. 

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who was then Speaker, said it “was a new day in the capital,” according to Bob Woodward’s book The Price of Politics.

Now there is deep skepticism among Democrats and Republicans that the other side is willing to cooperate. 

“That’s always been the problem with this president. He gives wonderful speeches, his rhetoric is phenomenal, but he does the exact opposite,” said Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.). “He says, ‘I’m willing to work with you’ and then he doesn’t. It’s very disappointing.”

Johnson does not anticipate that Obama will lead the way on entitlement reform.

“We as Republicans have to show the American people this is what the problem is, this is how serious it is, this is why it needs to be addressed,” he said.  

While White House officials note that Obama has offered to agree to $400 billion in healthcare savings over the next 10 years and curb cost-of-living increases to Social Security benefits, Republicans think the president has little inclination to overhaul entitlement programs. 

“I have real doubts,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions (Ala.), the ranking Republican on the Senate Budget Committee.

Sessions noted that McConnell offered to work with the president on entitlement reform after his first inauguration.

The president had another opportunity to forge a deal with McConnell and Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) after the 2010 midterm elections, when Republicans recaptured the House. Instead, negotiations stalled in the summer of 2011 and Obama and congressional leaders decided to cut nearly $1 trillion in discretionary programs but leave entitlement programs mostly untouched. 

“They ran all the way to Election Day, campaigning, attacking Republicans who want to take your Social Security, and it was successful,” Sessions said of Obama’s political team. 

Four years ago, Obama tried to win over Republicans by playing an inside-the-Beltway game of outreach. He offered to make former Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), one of McConnell’s trusted advisers, his secretary of Commerce. His initial economic stimulus proposal in 2009 was packed full of tax breaks designed to appeal to Republicans. 

Obama’s 2013 plan is to push Republicans to compromise by bringing political pressure to bear on them from outside Washington. He recently announced that he is transforming his presidential campaign apparatus into a grassroots lobbying organization, Organizing for Action. 

David Axelrod, Obama’s longtime chief political strategist, acknowledged that the president is starting his second term with different expectations. 

“There is a difference in where we are today than when you come in and you’re brand-new,” he said. “The whole country’s gone through a difficult period, but I think the country likes this president. I think they support this president.

“Now he has four years to finish the work he’s begun,” Axelrod added. 

He said Republicans should be willing to work with the president “if they’re reading the polling.”

Democrats say any deficit-reduction package must include a balance of spending cuts and tax increases. They are skeptical that Republicans are willing to concede any more ground on taxes. 

“The jury is still out, really,” Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said.