About-face or face-off

Even before their rising star and presidential hopeful Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal had flubbed his big debut in the national spotlight, House and Senate Republicans had decided to behave on Tuesday night.

There was no GOP pouting at President Obama’s speech before Congress, primarily because it was a difficult speech to protest, purposefully non-controversial and nonpartisan. In addition, new national polls released the day before had taken a toll on Republicans. Majorities gave the new president high marks for bringing about change and handling the economic crisis. Obama’s job approval numbers not only beat those of congressional Republicans by 30 points, but 73 percent of those polled by The Washington Post/ABC News believed Obama was trying to compromise with Republicans, while only 34 percent polled believed the opposite was true. In a New York Times poll, 63 percent of respondents said Republicans voted against the stimulus package for political reasons rather than policy principles.

With beating him out of the question, Republicans decided to join Obama’s party. They clamored to greet him, ogled his wife, and one GOP congressman reported in a Twitter: “Place is on fire.” In response to Obama’s speech, House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) released statements praising Obama’s “compelling case” and his “commitment to the millions who are struggling,” and both pledged to work with the president on the challenges ahead.

But will Republicans work with Obama? And if they don’t, will they pay a price?

Unified and energized though they were by blocking the stimulus package, Republicans aren’t likely to enjoy the same “win” again in the months to come. Obama will prove a vexing opponent. While the government steps in and threatens to swallow the private sector whole, Republicans will oppose government intervention as Obama argues it is our only remaining hope for economic recovery. He will challenge the GOP to come up with new ideas, but he will not scold the opposition from the microphone, as presidents are tempted to do. Obama will keep smiling and making offer after offer. There will be more Super Bowl-like parties, rides on Air Force One, cocktails, Oval Office chats and plans for basketball games with Sens. John Thune (R-S.D.) and John Ensign (R-Nev.).

Obama’s campaign for bipartisanship may not win over Republicans, but he intends for it to win over the public. Though he may never include GOP ideas or come near to compromising on policy matters, the optics alone could punish Republicans. No matter the country’s problems, should Obama continue killing Republicans with kindness, they risk being blamed for turning him down.

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist (R) supported the stimulus and used optimistic, forward-looking language to describe how it will help people “looking for work and searching for hope.” Crist may run for the Senate next year, and should he oppose Obama’s future policies, he will be able to say he at least tried working with the president. Unlike the congressmen — Don Young (R-Alaska), John Mica (R-Fla.), Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.), Greg Walden (R-Ore.) — who sent press releases touting provisions of a bill they voted against, Crist has bought himself some credibility. Republican candidates will want to bank some of that before the 2010 elections.

Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.