Who's Obama courting with bipartisanship?

It's not John McCain or Eric Cantor, it's the American public, watching the GOP make trouble as the president makes nice.

Published February 24, 2009 11:26AM (EST)

On the eve of an informal State of the Union address set for Tuesday night, President Obama has some political wind at his back. Eighty percent of those questioned in a new Washington Post/ABC News poll said Obama had so far exceeded their expectations, and almost 70 percent said he was delivering on his promise to bring change to Washington.

The bad news in the poll, according to the Post, is that only 37 percent of Republicans approve of the job Obama's doing. But I think those are fine numbers, given that only 9 percent of Republicans voted for Obama in November (and zero percent of House Republicans voted for his stimulus/recovery bill.) Meanwhile, two-thirds of independents approve of Obama's performance, along with more than 90 percent of Democrats.

Watching Obama at the "Fiscal Responsibility Summit" on Monday, it became clear to me that the audience for his displays of bipartisanship isn't so much Republicans in Congress as the voters beyond them. I share liberals' worries about the possibility of needless "compromise," especially on Social Security, for the sake of pleasing the GOP, but we haven't seen that -- yet. What we saw Monday was Obama seeming supremely warm and welcoming, calm and reasonable, hosting Republicans again, from his November opponent Sen. John McCain to the GOP turncoat Judd Gregg, who changed his mind and rejected Obama's offer to be commerce secretary two weeks ago.

Obama even let McCain ask the first question (though McCain was described in a media pool report on the summit as "irritable and close to losing his temper at one point"). McCain challenged the purchase of a new fleet of presidential helicopters that predated Obama's tenure, and the president said he was inclined to agree. Even Rep. Eric Cantor, the geeky wannabe Gingrich who ensured Obama got no House GOP votes for his stimulus, got to make a comment, and as Obama closed the summit, he singled out Canter again as he promised to keep reaching out to Republicans. "I'm gonna keep on talking to Eric Cantor and some day, sooner or later, he's gonna say, Obama had a good idea!'" Obama joked.

But that won't be the measure of his success, and Obama knows it. He's trying to make it clear to voters that he's including the other party, even if they keep snubbing him -- even if Cantor's band of rejectionionists never gives him a single vote, and even if ideologues like Louisiana's Bobby Jindal, South Carolina's Mark Sanford and Mississippi's Haley Barbour want to hurt their own states by rejecting stimulus funds that extend unemployment insurance. Right now, it's all helping Obama.

Proof in today's poll that Obama's strategy is working? According to the Post, "61 percent said they trust Obama more than the GOP when it comes to economic matters, just 26 percent side with the Republicans in Congress. Obama's advantage on that question is bigger than George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, or George H.W. Bush ever had over the opposition party in the legislature on dealing with the economy."


By Joan Walsh

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Barack Obama Republican Party