Republicans and Democrats are talking to each other. The president spent an hour this week answering questions from his biggest critics — House Republicans. This on the heels of a dinner with a dozen Senate Republicans, as yet another meeting is set with all 45 GOP members of the Senate.
Has something gotten into the drinking water in the nation’s capital? Maybe, but it’s clear some important people have decided they’re not getting anywhere by remaining in their separate corners. At the White House, the president and his advisers have evidently decided they can’t go on as they were. A few insiders have confided to reporters that new polls showing Mr. Obama’s approval dropping after the latest budget debacle — the infamous sequester — persuaded them that standing on principle was not an adequate approach. The White House view that Republicans would take most if not all of the blame for the blunt, across-the-board cuts on Republicans, did not pan out.
It is true that Americans are holding Republicans accountable: a survey by the firm Greenberg, Quinlan and Rosner gave them a 27 percent approval rating, and 66 percent disapproval. But that’s an improvement from their ratings in January. At the same time, Americans are making it clear they believe President Obama bears some responsibility too. His standing remains higher than theirs, but it has dropped from 54 percent before inauguration, to 48 percent now. Fully 49 percent of those surveyed said they disapprove of how Mr. Obama is handling his job. In November, he won re-election with over 51 percent of the vote, to 47 percent for Mitt Romney; the slippage is small but measurable.
Looking at numbers like these helped persuade the president and his inner circle they couldn’t afford to assume public backing just because they believe they are right on the issues, or because Mr. Obama prevailed in November by 4 points. It’s true that not everyone in the White House appears to be on board with the new approach. One “senior White House official” told reporter Ron Fournier of the National Journal that the outreach to Republicans is “a joke,” and suggested it would lead nowhere. The official said, “I hope you all (in the media) are happy because we’re doing it for you.”
Likewise, Republican House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan told an interviewer he and his colleagues aren’t at all sure the president is sincere in his outreach; they suspect he may be doing it as a “temporary, poll-driven political calculation.” Of course, both sides are looking at polls, at the same time both sides are motivated by principle.
So far, for all the eating and the talking, no progress has been reported. Comparing the Paul Ryan budget proposal with the budget emerging from Democrats in the Senate, there are some glaring differences. Ryan would balance federal revenues with spending in 10 years; the Senate Democratic plan — honchoed by Senate Budget Committee Chair Patty Murray — takes a longer timeline to balance. The proposed House budget takes a larger bite out of entitlements, moving to transform Medicare into a voucher or premium support system;the Senate plan makes no changes to Medicare beyond what is already in the president’s health care reform plan.
The president is trying to find common ground between the two, first by building up some goodwill, something sorely lacking in this city. It won’t be easy. As I watched the white smoke billowing out of the chimney over the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican Wednesday, signaling that 114 Catholic Cardinals had agreed on a Pope, I thought about how it took these men, representing every different corner of the world, less than two days to agree on a new leader for their church. If these men of such contrasting backgrounds can reach agreement so quickly on a decision so profound, maybe they have some tips to share with American political leaders who are searching for a few strands of common thinking on how to get our fiscal house in order.