At President Obama's first press conference last night, he was asked a question about bipartisanship by CBS News' Chip Reid:
You have often said that bipartisanship is extraordinarily important, overall and in this stimulus package, but now, when we ask your advisers about the lack of bipartisanship so far -- zero votes in the House, three in the Senate -- they say, "Well, it's not the number of votes that matters; it's the number of jobs that will be created."
Is that a sign that you are moving away -- your White House is moving away from this emphasis on bipartisanship?
And what went wrong? Did you underestimate how hard it would be to change the way Washington works?
It was a good question.
And Obama had a pretty good answer. "I don't think I underestimated it," he answered. "I don't think the American people underestimated it. They understand that there have been a lot of bad habits built up here in Washington, and it's going to take time to break down some of those bad habits."
He said that his efforts to build bipartisan consensus were an ongoing project -- "not designed simply to get some short-term votes," but to "build up some trust over time." The overtures weren't about this bill alone and "not designed simply to get some short-term votes."
It may not look like it from where you're sitting, but Obama's efforts are enjoying some success -- not in building bipartisanship, but in highlighting the partisanship of the GOP. Obama doesn't have to succeed in building a broad coalition, he just has to try. When he reaches across the aisle and Republicans slap his hand back, it's not Obama who feels the sting.
Case in point -- a Gallup poll out yesterday. Respondents were asked if they approved or disapproved of Obama's efforts on the stimulus, Republicans in Congress's efforts, and congressional Democrats' efforts. They approved of Obama's overwhelmingly -- 67%. Democrats came in second with 48% and Republicans were dead last with 31%.
"These findings, based on Gallup Poll interviews conducted Feb. 6-7, underscore the degree to which Obama appears to be maintaining the upper hand over his opponents from a public opinion perspective as he and congressional leaders wrangle over the precise form and substance of a new economic stimulus plan," Gallup tells us.
In other polling, Obama's doing just as well. A CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll gives Obama a stratospheric 76% approval rating. And, again, the majority believe that Republicans suck.
"Six out of 10 approved of the way Democratic leaders in Congress are handling their jobs," CNN reported. "But only 44 percent of those questioned approved of the way Republican leaders in Congress are performing. Overall, only 29 percent said they like the way Congress is handling its job, with 71 percent disapproving."
The best part of all this? The GOP thinks this is working for them.
Three months after their Election Day drubbing, Republican leaders see glimmers of rebirth in the party's liberation from an unpopular president, its selection of its first African American chairman and, most of all, its stand against a stimulus package that they are increasingly confident will provide little economic jolt but will pay off politically for those who oppose it.
"After giving the package zero votes in the House, and with their counterparts in the Senate likely to provide in a crucial procedural vote today only the handful of votes needed to avoid a filibuster, Republicans are relishing the opportunity to make a big statement..."
"We're so far ahead of where we thought we'd be at this time," Rep. Paul Ryan told WaPo. "It's not a sign that we're back to where we need to be, but it's a sign that we're beginning to find our voice. We're standing on our core principles, and the core principle that suffered the most in recent years was fiscal conservatism and economic liberty. That was the tallest pole in our tent, and we took an ax to it, but now we're building it back."
Wow, Paul. You're "so far ahead of where we thought we'd be?" Looking at these polling numbers, that would suggest you expected to be run out of DC on a rail -- maybe on that "tallest pole." If this is success, what's failure -- an actual death toll?
Personally, I've been pulling my hair out over this bipartisanship stuff. I always say that meeting someone who's crazy halfway is halfway crazy. It's already allowed the stimulus bill to be watered down to a point that it's nowhere near enough.
But, from a political standpoint, maybe it was always impossible to get a complete stimulus bill through. Maybe the plan was always to go back to the well. Obama's attempts at bipartisanship merely made the partisan hacks in the GOP look bad, making second and third boosts and tweaks that much more likely to be successful.
The Republicans may be having fun with their obstructionism and wingnuttery, but -- despite what they seem to be telling themselves -- it's not working.