Obama Charm Offensive May Have Limited Effect

Some Republicans just don’t trust the president.

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President Barack Obama waves to the media as he walks across the South Lawn to the Oval Office of the White House from Marine One, Tuesday, March 5, 2013, in Washington.

President Obama's new charm offensive is a step in the right direction, political strategists say, but it won't mean much unless Obama continues his outreach with an intensity that he has never maintained before.

Obama's goal is apparently to bypass Republican leaders in the Senate and persuade individual GOP legislators to work with him on major issues, from the budget to immigration.

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He had dinner with a dozen GOP senators Wednesday night at a fancy Washington restaurant, with the president picking up the tab. On Thursday, he had lunch with Wisconsin Republican Rep. Paul Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee and the Republican vice presidential nominee in 2012, along with Maryland Rep. Chris Van Hollen, the ranking Democrat on the committee.

And next week, the president is scheduled to meet separately with Republican and Democratic legislators on Capitol Hill.

President Barack Obama waves to the media as he walks across the South Lawn to the Oval Office of the White House from Marine One, Tuesday, March 5, 2013, in Washington.

The reviews so far have been good. Not effusive but good, with Obama and the individual legislators saying the talks have been constructive and pleasant.

But something is missing: real relationships between the president and his adversaries, of the kind that allowed Republican President Ronald Reagan and Democratic House Speaker Tip O'Neill to work together in the 1980s. Or the kind of relationship that allowed Democratic President Bill Clinton to work, at least occasionally, with Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich in the 1990s.

The relationships among these leaders didn't totally prevent political collisions, but the bonds also led to deals, and that's what Obama seems to be aiming for.

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Another reason that deals will be so difficult to achieve is because all sides are so dug in when it comes to their conflicting policy positions. Conservatives will continue to oppose tax increases. Liberals will continue to oppose deep cuts in popular social programs.

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney admits: "We're not naive about the challenges that we still face. They exist, and there are differences."

Perhaps chief among them is that even if Obama manages to get some traction in the Democrat-controlled Senate on the budget, the Republican-controlled House shows no sign of accommodating him on the tax increases that he favors and that most GOP legislators oppose.

While praising Obama for talking to legislators, House Speaker John Boehner says, "If the president continues to insist on tax hikes, I don't think we're going to get very far."

[READ: Obama Sticking With Broad Agenda]

And it will be difficult for Obama to drive a wedge between a handful of GOP senators, on the one hand, and their leaders and more conservative colleagues. That's because there is a common fear among GOP legislators of being challenged from the right in a primary, and working too closely with Obama could endanger a Republican incumbent's renomination.

And many Republicans simply don't trust Obama to bargain in good faith, GOP strategists say. Some Republicans are seething because the president and his allies have been attacking the GOP in recent weeks as obstructionist.

And the Republicans think he might turn on them again at any moment if he concludes that renewing his attacks is a better tactic than conciliation for helping Democrats win a majority in the House and keep control of the Senate in the 2014 election.

In the end, Republicans legislators argue that there is a limit to how far they can move toward Obama no matter how many dinners he buys them or how many lunches he provides at the White House.

Ken Walsh covers the White House and politics for U.S. News. He writes the daily blog "Ken Walsh's Washington," for usnews.com and is the author of "The Presidency" column for the U.S. News Weekly. He can be reached at kwalsh@usnews.com and followed on Facebook and Twitter.