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In Calling for Bipartisanship, Obama Faces New Tests

January 27, 2009 at 6:10 PM EDT
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President Barack Obama has promised to bring a more conciliatory brand of politics to Washington as lawmakers grapple over the economic stimulus bill and foreign policy decisions. Analysts discuss some of the president's first, and most important, legislative tests.
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JIM LEHRER: And Judy Woodruff has more on President Obama’s push for Republican support.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mr. Obama’s trip to Capitol Hill today was the latest visible sign that the new president is trying to change how Washington does business.

We get three views on his attempt to reach across the aisle from: Kenneth Duberstein, former chief of staff for President Reagan; historian Richard Norton Smith, scholar-in-residence at George Mason University; and Bob Herbert, columnist for the New York Times.

Bob Herbert, to you first. Should the president be working so hard to get Republicans to sign on to this plan?

BOB HERBERT, New York Times: Sure. I mean, I think that that’s the way President Obama functions. He would like to get as much Republican support as possible.

But, you know, I’d like to make the point that, you know, you travel this country right now, and there’s a great tragedy unfolding out there. People are losing their jobs; homes are being foreclosed upon; families are being pushed into bankruptcy; there’s an economic emergency in the land right now.

And one of the things that I think that the Democrats and the president need to be concerned about is that you don’t want to continue the same policies that led to this economic emergency. So the idea of giving in to Republican objections merely for the sake of bipartisanship, I think, is not a good idea.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ken Duberstein, is there a danger that he could end up giving in to the Republicans too much?

KENNETH DUBERSTEIN, former chief of staff to Ronald Reagan: Look, when you’re sitting in the White House having just won an election, and the American people are saying, “Hey, guys, you’re in the same sandbox. Find a way to work together,” and Barack Obama goes to the Hill, meets with the Republicans — House and Senate — and sends his vice president to meet with the Senate Democrats, that’s what the American people are looking for.

It seems to me that the only people who are not getting the message as far as reaching out are the House and Senate Republicans, but also the House and Senate Democrats.

It takes some give-and-take. It’s the sausage-making. And what Obama has laid down — President Obama has laid down is, “I will go the extra mile.” That’s what the American people are looking for as you start shaping an ultimate product, not the product that we see today.

Harder to reach across the aisle

JUDY WOODRUFF: Richard Norton Smith, what's the history, the modern-era history of presidents trying to reach across the aisle?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH, George Mason University: Well, in some ways, this is a throwback to the '40s, and the '50s, and even the '60s, when you had a Cold War and a bipartisan consensus, particularly in foreign policy.

Harry Truman famously worked with the so-called do-nothing 80th Congress. Dwight Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson were unlikely political soul mates, but they worked very well together and LBJ in the White House.

It's really, in the last 30 years or so, when that, for lack of a better word -- when consensus itself became a dirty word to ideologues at both ends of the political spectrum. And that, in turn, has been fed in many ways by the rise of talk radio, cable TV to some degree, so that it's become harder and harder for any president, I think, to reach across the aisle. But I agree. I think it's sincere, but it's very smart politics.

'Why should anyone listen to them?'

JUDY WOODRUFF: Bob Herbert, you wrote today in the New York Times that the Republicans you said have done such damage to the economy, you said that it's been a backbreaker for the middle class, why should anybody listen to them? The president, though, is saying he wants to bring them on board.

BOB HERBERT: The reason I said, "Why should anyone listen to them?" You know, the headline on the column was, "The Same Old Song." The reason I said, "Why should anyone listen to them?" is because they're pushing exactly the same discredited trickle-down economic theories. They want additional tax cuts.

I mean, even if you go beyond the stimulus package, they want to make the Bush tax cuts permanent. This is the party that argued so vociferously about fiscal responsibility and that they've run up these incredible deficits.

They cut taxes in time of war. They pursued tax policies that shifted the wealth of this country even more to those who were already very wealthy.

I really think that we need to get the message that the policies we've been pursuing are the policies that have gotten us into so much trouble and we have to change.

If the Republican Party decides that it has a new approach, that it wants to be bipartisan, then I think that's all to the good. But I haven't seen very much of that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Given that, Ken Duberstein, what's in it for the president to do this?

KENNETH DUBERSTEIN: Look, as the president spelled out today, this is just the first in a series of initiatives. When you're building legislative coalitions, what it takes is, vote after vote -- it may be health care. It may be environment. It may be energy or it may be more stimulus or it may be more tax cuts. And what you try to do is build the biggest, broadest reservoir of votes that you can have.

When the American people, in the first snapshot after Obama has been inaugurated, says that 68 percent support his presidency, the politicians on Capitol Hill need to listen. He's doing something right.

And one of the things that I think he's doing right is going up to Capitol Hill, start working on these votes, not just Republicans, but, frankly, get the Democrats, especially in the Senate, maybe to give a little bit more here or there, especially on the spending side.

Obama refining his image

JUDY WOODRUFF: Richard, how much does it affect his presidency in terms of how successful he is?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Well, enormously. Remember, he's still defining himself for lots of people. Going up to the Hill is, I think, less about actually getting Republican votes than it is about defining himself for those independent voters and for a number of Republicans who are perfectly willing to work with the new administration, who understand the country voted for change.

He is being the moderate. He's being the reasonable leader. He's going up to the Hill to meet with people.

And he said something the other day very interesting. Remember at the first meeting he mentioned Rush Limbaugh? That was not, I think, an off-the-cuff remark. He knows the Republican Party has been reduced to a rump, ideological and geographical. And he's going to give them the choice of being, in effect, the Rush Limbaugh Republican Party or the Ronald Reagan Republican Party.

And that's, again, it seems to me that's part of the political calculation that is behind all of this.

KENNETH DUBERSTEIN: Ronald Reagan taught us that, during a campaign, you try to annihilate your adversary, but when you're governing, you try to woo your adversaries. He did it with Tip O'Neill with all the Democrats in the House. Obama is taking a play out of that playbook and saying, "Let me try to reach across the aisle."

'Extraordinarily shrewd politics'

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Bob Herbert, what about that? And couldn't we be now in such a different moment that it is worth it for the president to do what he's doing?

BOB HERBERT: Well, I think we are in a different moment, but I think the Republicans should look back at the early days of the Clinton administration. And if you recall, in that first Clinton budget, the Democrats and Bill Clinton passed the budget with not a single Republican vote.

And, you know, history has sort of shown that that Clinton economy seemed to work a heck of a lot better than the economy has worked over the course of the Bush years.

So I'm in favor of bipartisanship. But I think that it is incumbent on the Republican Party, which has had most of the clout for the past eight years, to decide that they are the ones that need to do a little bit of the giving as the give-and-take takes place.

JUDY WOODRUFF: A response from each one of you?

KENNETH DUBERSTEIN: Well, I think the Republican members of the House and the Senate understand that this economic situation is so dire that there have to be some accommodations. This was not the end of partisanship, but it was the beginnings, again, of trying to reach across the aisle. And the fact that the president has been willing to do it I think will be met in turn, as well.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Symbolism. Bob mentioned the early days of the Clinton administration. Remember when the president had a haircut on the runway?

By contrast, today, what was the story? This administration forced Citigroup to cancel a $50 million airplane in the midst of this bailout. That's extraordinarily shrewd politics.

KENNETH DUBERSTEIN: Right on target.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Richard Norton Smith, Ken Duberstein, and Bob Herbert in agreement, at least on this point. Thank you all.

BOB HERBERT: Thanks so much.