Obama’s Appeal for Bipartisanship Garners a Mixed Response


Among the passionately expressed sentiments in last night’s State of the Union was the president’s call for bipartisanship. He first reminded Democrats that even with voter frustration and anger running high against Washington, they have the largest majority in decades, and “the people expect us to solve some problems, not run for the hills.”

But his main message on this point was aimed at the GOP:

“…if the Republican leadership is going to insist that 60 votes in the Senate are required to do any business at all in this town, then the responsibility to govern is now yours as well. Just saying no to everything may be good short-term politics, but it’s not leadership. We were sent here to serve our citizens, not our ambitions. So let’s show the American people than we can do it together.”

I thought I’d sample some reaction among Republican House members, where Mr. Obama has met a wall of opposition on his main initiatives so far. I wanted to see if his new appeal had any resonance with them.

A few demonstrated they had been listening, and might even be receptive to the president’s suggestion:

Rep. Mike Castle of Delaware, a candidate for the U.S. Senate seat held previously by Vice President Joe Biden, said in a statement that he likes the president’s renewed focus on jobs, and desire to limit government spending … and agrees there needs to be a bipartisan approach going forward:

“With these shared goals, comes a responsibility to work together in order to actually develop and pass policies that can turn our economy around, and improve the financial security of all Americans. This blueprint for 2010 should be fulfilled in a bipartisan, transparent way that puts people before politics. “

At the same time, Castle is not buying the White House’s insistence that it already has been reaching out to Republicans in a serious way: “We have not seen that approach from this administration on health care, or any other issue over the past year, and I hope we will see a different approach in 2010.”

Hmm, sounds like a disconnect, even from those who would consider working with Democrats.

Hailing from the other side of the country, Washington State Rep. Dave Reichert, a third-term Republican who was elected from the district on the eastern edge of metro Seattle, said he appreciates the president’s focus on helping struggling families, and agreed that, “yes, we need to work together.”

But he added he believes there are more effective solutions than “the inflated spending packages we’ve seen so far.” He also criticized Mr. Obama’s advocacy of free trade, saying it was just “lip service,” and the proposal to create jobs by retrofitting homes to be more energy efficient, would be a “short term, band aid approach.”

Elected from rock red Republican Utah, one GOP representative had something positive to say: first term Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Provo said he sees some opportunity for bipartisan support after hearing the president.

“I was surprised that he at least gave vocal support for nuclear energy and earmark reform. … I walked up and shook the president’s hand afterward, and said I look forward to working with him.”

But Chaffetz followed up by noting he disagrees on the President’s plan to lift the ban on gays in the military: “This is not the time to do that in the middle of two active wars.”

Representative Jim Gerlach, whose Pennsylvania district encompasses the prosperous Philadelphia suburbs known as the Main Line, acknowledged hearing what he called, “a slightly different tune from President Obama about the path for putting Americans back to work.” But he noted, “his biggest challenge will be getting House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to sing along.”

Still, Gerlach said he is “hopeful that the President is serious about lowering taxes for small businesses and ending the big government spending sprees of the past year that have put our children and grandchildren deeper in debt. The president’s proposal to lower taxes for employers that keep jobs on American soil is one that I have been working on for some time.”

An obstetrician who represents the congressional district at the northern edge of Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas, Michael Burgess, complained just before the State of the Union that the White House was not making enough information available about any deals it cuts with groups like doctors, hospitals and drug makers:, information he had been seeking for three months:

“President Obama promised to run the most transparent and open Administration in history, and his decision to hoard this information from Congress and the American people is dishonorable.”

Much of the Republican response fit this one from Florida’s Ginny Brown-Waite, serving her fourth term representing the counties north and east of St. Petersburg and Tampa:

“The American people are more excited about the iPad release today than President Obama’s hollow promises.” She added: “His speech will not create jobs, restore consumer confidence, or open credit lines for small businesses.”

In the months to come, we’ll be watching to see if the president is able to make a dent in an opposition as firm what I heard from these members. Even more discouraging for the White House: all but one of the members I quoted here, Jason Chaffetz of Utah, belong to the Tuesday Group, which describes itself as “a caucus of moderate House Republicans.”