Some Republican strategists are criticizing plans by President Barack Obama to talk budget cuts with Republican senators at a fancy Washington, D.C., restaurant tonight as a public relations stunt, but several key lawmakers say the outreach couldn't have come soon enough.
Obama is scheduled to dine with a dozen conservative senators at the Tony Jefferson Hotel and the White House also announced the president will be going to Capitol Hill next week to meet with both the Democratic and Republican caucuses. The moves follow a series of phone calls Obama made to Republican senators last weekend as he tries to circumvent GOP leadership to forge an alternative to the billions in automatic cuts that his administration--and some economists--predict could send the slowly recovering economy back into a tailspin.
"Obama is trying to repair his image by showing himself to be someone who is willing to work across party lines to achieve results, and not a legislative dictator as he has been recently dubbed," says Ford O'Connell, a GOP strategist. "By going around the Republican leadership the president is fishing for legislative breakpoints among the GOP Senators he believes are most likely to compromise on key issues. If he can move this group of Senators, he believes he can move Senate legislation and put pressure on the GOP-controlled House."
The president has been criticized by both parties for failing to reach out to lawmakers to help ease his legislative agenda. But at least with some, the new effort seems to have hit a nerve.
A spokesman for Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins, a moderate who sometimes crosses the aisle on issues, says she spoke to Obama on Monday and is supportive of a bipartisan fiscal deal.
"Sen. Collins said they had a good discussion about the need for a bipartisan agreement on several critical issues including the unsustainable, $16.6 trillion debt and sequestration," says Kevin Kelley, Collins' spokesman. "She encouraged further discussions of a substantive nature and she is pleased that he has reached out and is inviting members to the White House."
An aide for another Republican senator set to dine with Obama Wednesday, called his approach "encouraging."
Both Republicans and Democrats are bracing for the public's anger as the effects of the swath of budget cuts sink in and are scrambling to position themselves as political winners in the budget showdown that features Democrats pushing for a mix of spending cuts and tax increases and Republicans insisting on strictly spending cuts.
Pundits have mocked the president for over-hyping the effects of the sequester, which officially began on March 1, and see his newfound appreciation for communicating with lawmakers as an admission of his political miscalculation. Obama's approval rating also took a recent tumble, according to Gallup, from a 53 percent approval rating last week to just 49 percent currently.
Ron Bonjean, a Republican political strategist, says Obama's outreach won't result in any real progress.
"It is more likely that Obama is trying to do away with the perception of trying to destroy the GOP through a permanent campaign," he says. "This is a simple public relations attempt to show that he is governing by talking to the other side. If Obama remains consistent through engaging Republicans over the next two years, he can make progress on changing policy and perception."
But Democratic pollster Celinda Lake says that if Obama can turn even a couple of Republicans to support a deal, the benefit will be tenfold in the public's perception of his leadership.
"Voters are very frustrated with how polarized and divisive this debate is," she says. "The public and the elites don't expect the House Republicans to agree on anything. If even one or two Senate Republicans agree on budget or tax increases that's huge to legitimize the president's approach."