Obama on the mend

A month after his worst-ever political bruising, President Obama — with a lip full of stitches — came out swinging this week. Ready to do battle with ascendant Republicans, Obama on Monday traded indecision and muddled messaging for a policy proposal with teeth that bit his liberal base and forced GOPers to nod their heads. On Tuesday he greeted his adversaries with a humble admission of error and regret. More of this and Barack Obama may yet manage to rehabilitate his presidency and earn a second term. 

Whether Obama is capable of more outreach is in doubt. The question of his capacity for change has hung over both parties since Nov. 2, when Democrats suffered steeper losses than any party in more than half a century. Will those campaign promises of not “falling back onto the same old ideologies or the same stale sound bites” — words he used again on Monday — remain empty and unfulfilled? Or will Obama succeed in crawling to the center, where independent voters in 2008 thought he would govern, and neutralize the anger that delivered the GOP a historic victory in 2010? 

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Republicans responded predictably to Obama’s new maneuvering — they praised his proposal to freeze federal pay but grumbled that they deserved credit for the idea. At the White House meeting they were grateful he confessed his failure to reach out to them previously, but they aren’t expecting much. Neither are the Democrats, who privately accuse President Obama of not only caving to Republicans on the extension of the Bush tax cuts but of lacking negotiating skills and having a political tin ear. 

Back at the Capitol, with “Kumbaya” behind them, Republicans dug in and signaled there would be no bargaining. House Republicans declared their opposition to any bill that didn’t extend cuts to all taxpayers, even a bill extending middle-class tax cuts. Senate Republicans promised to block votes on any legislation besides the extension of tax cuts and a temporary spending bill to fund the government. 

To take the most recent measure of the degradation of bipartisanship, one can stop at START. The arms-control treaty between the United States and Russia became a political football in recent weeks when President Obama suddenly insisted it be passed before the new year and Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), who has raised credible, substantive objections, insisted there wasn’t enough time for passage during the lame-duck session. Obama and Kyl are both playing politics. Ratifying START doesn’t have to happen in December, but Obama knows he will need 14 Republicans next year, instead of the nine he needs to pass it now. Kyl knows that the first START Treaty passed the Senate by a vote of 93-6 in 1992 in five days while the second (known as SORT) passed in 2003 by a vote of 95-0, having spent just two days on the Senate floor. 

If, after the lame-duck Congress passes a continuing resolution to fund the government and a likely temporary extension of tax relief for all brackets, it can be prodded to pass START, Obama can claim a victory. He won’t have won this round, but he won’t have been buried, either.

On Tuesday, Obama could have left the meeting with GOP leaders talking about how they refused to budge on using deficit spending for tax cuts for the wealthy while denying jobless benefits to the unemployed. But instead he said, “Today we had the beginning of a new dialogue that I hope — and I’m sure most Americans hope — will help break through the noise and produce real gains.”

Who knows how long it will last. But it’s a start.

Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.