Now we'll get to see what Obama means when he calls for "bipartisanship."

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Jan. 26 2009 7:58 PM

Bi-Curious

Now we'll get to see what Obama means when he calls for "bipartisanship."

John McCain and Barack Obama. Click image to expand.
John McCain and Barack Obama

It has always been hard to define bipartisanship in Washington. Is bipartisan legislation simply a bill that wins a certain number of votes from the minority party? Is a bipartisan politician simply one who disagrees with his or her own party? And in Barack Obama's Washington, the term may be even harder to define. He delivered an inaugural address sharply critical of his predecessor, and then as soon as he was done, he turned around and hugged him.

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

Now that Obama is working on his first big piece of legislation, we'll get a more concrete view of the new shape of bipartisanship in Washington. Before he was sworn in, Obama told his congressional allies that he wanted broad Republican support for the stimulus package. Obama also told Republican leaders in early meetings that he knew he could ram through legislation on a simple party-line vote but that he didn't want to do that.

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Now some Republicans, such as House Minority Leader John Boehner and Sen. John McCain, have said they intend to vote against Obama's plan. How will Obama respond? In the face of increased opposition, how much will Obama work for bipartisanship as an end in itself? Will he agree to GOP modifications to buy votes, or will he accept puny GOP support because he knows that, in the end, voters are more interested in action than whether he lived up to some standard of bipartisanship that he set for himself? (From the loophole he created in his ethics policy, we know that he is comfortable with exceptions to his own rules.)

For their part, Republicans have to figure out how willing they are to buck an extremely popular president who has the gifts to convince the public that his opponents are acting in their political self-interest. Republicans who seek to use Obama's own promises of bipartisanship against him also have to overcome the perception that Obama has been making a genuine effort to reach out (with the exception of the Rush Limbaugh distraction), which is exactly what voters want from him.

Obama will be at it again Tuesday as he heads to Capitol Hill to meet with Republican leaders. Last Friday he had them over to his house. It's just one of the many ways in which he has kept his promise to act differently. (His staff has been working just as hard.) But Republicans are asking for more. They want him to actually adopt some of their ideas. In this, they echo a Democratic criticism of George W. Bush, who Democrats said would smile and be nice to them but never take up their ideas. Bush's view of a bipartisan, said Democrats, was someone who believed in what Bush did.

To some Democrats, Obama has already capitulated to Republicans by agreeing to nearly $300 billion in tax cuts in the stimulus package. That doesn't really count as the product of give-and-take with Republicans, though, since Obama campaigned on tax cuts and his top economic advisers, like Christine Romer, are pushing the substantive case for the benefit of tax cuts. To show that Obama was adopting GOP ideas, press secretary Robert Gibbs singled out the net-operating-loss tax provision as a GOP-inspired item that Obama had been convinced to include.

That's not a great example, and not only because the phrase "net-operating-loss tax provision" will put people to sleep before they even get a chance to hear how wonderfully bipartisan it is. The item also has broad existing Democratic support. Democrats offered it up last year in the stimulus package along with other items in the current plan for small-business expensing and depreciation.

Whether Obama and his team are open to any new GOP ideas won't matter much if he gets a strong number of Republican votes. Will he get 15 Republicans in the Senate to match the 15 Democrats Bush won on his first tax-cut vote? Or will he get the 43 that Bush won for the No Child Left Behind legislation?

It's hard to know at this point, because so many of the interested parties are still finding their roles. Some Republicans are objecting strenuously because they want to show their constituents they're alive and defending party principles. Republican leaders are also trying to get as much as they can out of the new guy. (The press, for its part, loves conflict, and so we're on the lookout for anything that might look like a genuine clash.)

A lot of this rumbling could disappear when it comes to a final vote on a bill aimed at helping people who are really hurting. Obama aides assume at a minimum that Republicans would be committing suicide if they pushed their opposition too far. That's also why Senate Democrats think members of the GOP Senate leadership are acting more reasonable than their House counterparts. One senior Democratic leadership aide pointed me to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's speech on bipartisanship last Friday: "He said all of the right things."

The political risk for Obama is not whether a lack of bipartisanship will keep his bill from becoming law. He's going to get his stimulus package. What this battle will show is just how Obama does the hard things he doesn't absolutely have to do—how he maneuvers around the immovable problems of partisanship, posturing, and the omnipresent presidential temptation to clobber your opponents when you can. Obama will tell us something by how he treats the Republicans he defeats. Will he declare them mindless Rush Limbaugh drones or say that while he disagrees with them, he doesn't challenge their motives? That, after all, is Obama's view of President Bush. Perhaps after the stimulus bill passes, he can schedule a group hug.

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