Obama Promises a New Approach to Hill

Posted January 22, 2009 at 1:45pm

Former President George W. Bush, fresh from re-election in 2004, was preparing to launch his massive bid to overhaul Social Security with individual accounts carved out of the system. But some Republican leaders were wary. They dispatched staffers to advise Bush aides that jumping onto the third rail of U.S. politics was not a popular idea among segments of the GOP caucus, and that it might not pass. Better to do immigration reform first.

Word soon came back: Bush would move right ahead with Social Security. By the end of 2005, Bush had squandered huge piles of political capital on a legislative effort that never even got out of committee. And by the time he got around to seeking changes in immigration policy, he had too little mojo left on Capitol Hill to push his plans through.

For some Republicans, it was another example of a consistent imperiousness toward Capitol Hill exhibited by the Bush administration. They had gone to bat for Bush numerous times, ramming massive tax cuts through in 2001 and convincing many Congressional Republicans to go against their principles and support adding a huge new prescription drug benefit to Medicare. No matter. The White House still seemed to be marching mainly to its own drumbeat.

While Bush had his share of legislative victories, President Barack Obama clearly believes he can do better by replacing “my way or the highway” with “reach out and touch.” As president-elect, he made three trips to Capitol Hill before placing his hand on Lincoln’s Bible and being sworn in as president. He has regularly lit up the phone lines on Capitol Hill, personally lobbying and schmoozing with dozens of legislators as he works to set his agenda, find support for his nominees, and move stimulus and financial bailout bills through Congress. Bush, on the other hand, frequently had to be cajoled onto the phone by aides to sway a few last votes.

Perhaps none of Obama’s Congressional courtships has been more significant than that of Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine). Her opposition to Bush’s Social Security effort was a major factor in it never getting off the ground. As then-Finance Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) tried to drum up at least a bare majority on his panel for the legislation, Snowe could be seen walking the halls shaking her head, saying she just could not support private accounts. The White House was not happy. If Bush political guru Karl Rove lost more hair during the course of the administration, it’s a safe bet he pulled some of it because of Olympia Snowe.

Today, Snowe clearly feels that Obama is already doing more to reach out to her than Bush ever did. “I think it’s significant — the outreach and the willingness to initiate conversation is critical given the urgency of the times,” she said. It’s the best way to get things done, she believes.

Obama must attract moderates such as Snowe in order to realize his goal of generating bipartisanship, according to Congressional officials. The Bush standard for bipartisanship, as enunciated by former Press Secretary Ari Fleischer, was inclusion of a single Democrat on a bill. Obama may ultimately have to adhere to a similar standard, but his best chance of true bipartisanship lies in the middle.

“He’s reached out,” Senate Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) said. “He’s wise enough to know that success is based on” bipartisanship.

But if Obama wants bipartisanship in the House, he will have to reach further than the center, said one senior Congressional GOP aide. House moderates, this staffer noted, are nearly an extinct species.

Some Republicans believe Obama’s selection of Pastor Rick Warren to offer the invocation at the inauguration transcended the symbolic. Obama’s willingness to put aside his own views and bring in someone whose opinions on homosexuality and other matters are abhorrent to members of the Democratic base shows an unusual willingness to conceive of opposing views as legitimate differences rather than the root of all evil.

Since the move by itself won’t really convince conservatives he likes them and has antagonized Democrats, the only thing it may show is the nature of Obama’s approach. Genuineness may be the key to GOP hearts.

“Barack Obama pretty much treats everyone the same,” said Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), one of a handful of lawmakers on Capitol Hill who know him best.

But, if his motives are genuine, Republicans and Democrats may have to enter into a kind of couples’ therapy to change the way they treat each other. And their relationship has been bad news for a long, long time.