Republicans by and large held their fire Monday following the peaceful installation of the nation’s commander in chief, but by next month’s State of the Union address, the so-called “loyal opposition” is unlikely to equivocate in expressing its simmering frustration with President Barack Obama.
The pomp and circumstance of Monday’s ceremonial festivities were a brief respite from Congress’ lurch from one tense budget deadline to the next, even if Obama did surprise many by mentioning several liberal-leaning policy goals in his inaugural address. Although the subtext of Obama’s speech was aimed at getting Congress to find some common ground, the Feb. 12 State of the Union will provide them with more specific targets.
“In spite of the words that he spoke today, his White House continues to be very confrontational rather than cooperative in working with Republicans,” said the No. 4 Republican in the Senate, John Barrasso of Wyoming.
Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, gushed about the civility of the ceremonial lunch Monday but indicated that his party’s disappointment with the president’s inaugural speech could boil over the next time he pays a call to the Capitol.
“Parts of it sounded more like a campaign speech and part of it was soaring rhetoric, which was positive, I thought, about getting together,” Portman said. He noted he is “absolutely” looking to the State of the Union to hear more details.
“The president missed an opportunity to point out where we can find common ground,” Portman continued. “Instead, he chose to talk about it in the abstract, and then his specificity was on things he believes but were not issues where we as a Congress and as an executive branch can make progress, and I’m referring to the debt and the deficit and tax reform.”
Of course, Republicans themselves are not united on how to proceed in the next months, let alone through the duration of Obama’s second term.
While Obama’s push for gun control and immigration changes may be popular in some polls, they represent agenda items that are politically perilous for both parties. Besides, those debates will likely have to wait until after Congress passes a debt ceiling hike and new spending bills.
House Republican leaders are seeking to forge ahead on a three-month extension of the nation’s debt limit in the coming days. Senate Democrats and the White House, however, seem to be waiting to see what, if anything, the House can pass before deciding how to handle it.
Obama spent precious little time talking about that issue in his speech, however.
Indeed, Republicans appeared perplexed by Obama’s focus on social issues in his Monday speech. He began by praising Americans’ “skepticism of central authority” and how the nation has never “succumbed to the fiction that all society’s ills can be cured through government alone.” But he moved on to expressing support for gay rights, climate change legislation, fair pay for women and citizenship for immigrant students.
“Well . . . a lot of that speech I would have been proud to have given. Particularly the first part,” said Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, an influential conservative and chairman of the House Financial Services Committee. “A fair amount of it, not so.”
After heralding constraints on government established by the “patriots of 1776,” Obama transitioned into arguing that the values of the American Revolution should prompt the government to tackle the thorny problems of today.
His remarks on climate change “took me back a little bit,” Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, said.
Obama also made an allusion to new gun control reforms and criticized the foreign policy of his predecessor, President George W. Bush, as “perpetual war.”
“I thought it was a little bit partisan,” Rep. Pat Tiberi, R-Ohio, said.
“He said . . . we’ll have to agree on some things to get stuff done. The speech didn’t inspire me in that direction,” Rep. John Campbell, R-Calif., said.
Obama did receive some encouragement. Freshman Republican Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, who has been working with a bipartisan group on possible areas of agreement on immigration, said he had spoken briefly to the president in the Capitol.
Flake said presidential leadership has been missing on the issue, and he welcomed the part of the speech where Obama promoted immigration reform.“If we can work jointly with the White House on this, it certainly saves time,” Flake said.
The senator added that the president should do more to reach out to the GOP, both on and off the Hill.
“He could invite us back to play basketball again at the White House. That would help, too,” Flake said.
Steven T. Dennis contributed to this report.