This isn't the easiest time to be chairman of the Republican National Committee. The GOP is out of power at the White House and on Capitol Hill, and Barack Obama's genial disposition and personal popularity sometimes make criticizing him seem a bit churlish or unkind. But Michael Steele, former lieutenant governor of Maryland and the first black head of the GOP, perseveres with energy, conviction, and enthusiasm. During an interview with U.S. News in his spacious office near the Capitol last week amid portraits of Abraham Lincoln and abolitionist Frederick Douglass, Steele said he is planning a "Republican renaissance." Excerpts:
What is your goal for the Republican Party?
To win elections, baby. I've got two important elections this November, in Virginia and New Jersey. We have unfolded, if you will, the flower of new leadership in the Republican Party as represented by Bob McDonnell, the attorney general of Virginia, and Chris Christie, the U.S. attorney for New Jersey, who are running, I think, very effective, very strong campaigns for governor. I feel very good about the talent that we have. But now the question becomes, how do we as a party re-engage with the American people, and what do we re-engage on? And where I think we do that is not just over philosophy and ideas but on the bottom-line aspects of policy. This is what it means to you if we do a, b, and c. This is what it will mean to you if we don't. If we grow and expand government control over the decisions that you make every day in your life, whether it's on your business or healthcare, whatever, these are the consequences and effects of that. If we free up the opportunity for you to access the market through your business or educationally for your children, these are the consequences for you.
To what extent is the party's role that of the loyal opposition?
We're going to engage our opponents. When the president's right, I'll be the first one standing by his side. When the president's wrong, I'll be the first one standing by his side saying so. That loyal opposition role is an important role right now for us, but it's not just about being in opposition. It's also about being for a future in which the individual is empowered to make important decisions for themselves.
The Senate Finance Committee this week rejected two versions of the "public option," government-sponsored health insurance. What's your reaction?
What we've seen this week is not indicative of what we're ultimately going to get, to be honest with you. I want to see the fine print. Don't just give me this up-or-down vote and say there's no public option in the bill. We know that's not how this is going to play out. You and I know what happens when Bill A and Bill B get in the conference [committee that will iron out differences between the House and Senate]. That's where the dirty work is done. That's where all the compromises and all the little pieces that you don't want to talk about in public, as they say—stuff you don't want to appear in your magazine on the front cover—that's where all that stuff gets slipped in.
Is this the administration that Americans expected to get when they voted for President Obama last November?
In terms of some of the energy and the idealism that the president brings, there's no surprise there. There's no falling short of expectations in that regard. But I do think on public policy, whether you're talking the economy or more specifically issues like healthcare, certainly now as we engage on questions regarding the prosecution of the war in Afghanistan or even the winding down of Iraq and Gitmo [the detention camp for suspected terrorists at Guantánamo Bay], I think people's expectations are not being met. I think that there was such a multiplicity of expectations, because "change" was never clearly defined in the campaign. So everybody defined it in their own terms, and I think now you have people saying, "Well, I thought he was going to do x; I thought we were going to do y," and the president still not necessarily with great clarity saying, "This is what we're going to do."
Have the realities of governing overtaken Obama?
I've been involved in politics for a long, long time, and I've grown up here in Washington, D.C., and I've watched the highfalutin, high-minded rhetorical flourishes come wafting into the city, only to come crashing upon the rocks of process and governing and politics. And I think that's no different for this administration. You have to have a sober appreciation of Washington. The president wasn't here that long [in the Senate] before he became president. So [he doesn't have the] appreciation of how this town operates and how it moves to its own rhythm, which I think is unfortunate, but it is what it is. It's not moving to the rhythm of the country. It's not moving to the rhythm of the mom and pop small-business owners out there. But you still have to have an appreciation of it if you're hoping to get certain things done. And I think at the very beginning you had the majority leader and the speaker of the House making very clear that "we do policy. We're the ones who are going to drive this healthcare issue." When they draw those lines, it tells you that this isn't about Republicans and Democrats. This is about the legislative branch versus the executive branch.