During the presidential campaign, Republicans warned of the dangers and futility of meeting with adversaries without preconditions, but candidate Barack Obama remained steadfast in his conviction that dialogue could bring progress. Who knew that the first test of these conflicting theories would play out domestically? President Obama made his first diplomatic trip this week, visiting not a foreign country but "red America" (or its congressional representatives). This jaunt, meant to build support for his stimulus package, demonstrated the strengths and limitations of opening lines of communication.
More than most politicians, Obama understands the power of words. He has built his career on them, from his bestselling books to the speeches that have undergirded his political rise: his 2002 address opposing the buildup to war in Iraq, his 2004 Democratic National Convention speech, his 2008 rally after winning the Iowa caucuses, and his convention address later last year. Words propelled Obama from the Illinois state legislature to the White House.
Our most effective presidents, especially in modern times, have understood the power and limitations of the "bully pulpit." Franklin Roosevelt, for example, used words to help mend the national psyche after the trauma of the Great Depression and to marshal the nation and guide it through World War II. Ronald Reagan was the "Great Communicator." Conversely, the presidents who were unwilling or unable to skillfully use the public education function of the presidency—think Gerald Ford, think Jimmy Carter, think the senior George Bush (unwilling) and the younger (unable)—have been ineffectual and/or failures.
A question for Obama has been which other weapons in the presidential arsenal he could skillfully wield. And one answer appears to be a willingness to deploy the bully pulpit on a different scale.
His inclination to negotiate with our adversaries reflects his belief in the power and importance of words and dialogue for reasons of both substance and image. "We will be in a stronger position to achieve tough international sanctions if the United States shows that we are willing to come to the table," he said last spring in Florida. Even if negotiations don't achieve anything, in other words, we garner soft-power points with the rest of the world for making the effort.
Which brings us back to Obama's appearances before congressional Republicans. Still enjoying a honeymoon glow (Gallup pegged his job approval rating at 68 percent) and working with significant Democratic majorities in both chambers, the president operated from a position of strength. He needed GOP votes neither for political cover nor for passage of his plan. (And he got no Republican votes when the House passed the bill.)
And he could not expect GOP votes. In the House especially, moderate Republicans have been hunted to extinction by hard-line Republicans and seat-seeking Democrats. The GOP legislators who are left reside almost exclusively on the right, and they knew that they had little reason to go along with the president. Why help pass legislation they philosophically opposed if, at best, doing so would bolster their political opponent? The Republicans assumed a posture similar to Herbert Hoover's vis-à-vis FDR during their presidential transition: Yes, I know you won, but seriously, my policies are better, so why don't you go ahead and adopt them?
Inadvertently, the GOP fulfilled its own prophecies about the dangers of dialogue for its own sake. Friendly conversations and mutual respect can get you only so far. Warm words cannot in and of themselves paper over broad philosophical chasms. Stalemate holds. Obama, of course, knew what to expect when he appeared before the Republicans, inviting them to "feel free to whack me over the head because I probably will not compromise" on refundable tax credits. In other words, I know we're not going to agree, but we can agree to disagree without genuine hostility. Rep. Jack Kingston, a Georgia Republican, called Obama "charming," according to the Washington Post's Dana Milbank, who also quoted Texas Republican Rep. Kevin Brady as describing the talk as a "very warm dialogue," if one that would not move any more Republican votes.