For liberals, the story of the Obama presidency is a Cave Allegory: When he talks about working with Republicans, it's a sign he's going to cave. They see it in the current fight over extending the Bush tax cuts, where they are certain the president will drop his resistance to a tax-cut extension for everyone, including those in the upper income bracket. "Fight, Don't Cave on Tax Cuts," demands a new ad by the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. Moveon.org is also calling on the president to fight and not let himself "get pushed around." This has led to questions about Obama's manhood that have taken the form of a Courtland Milloy analogy based on an injury Obama got playing ball to James Carville's inquisition into whether he had two.
Liberals are angry not just because of Obama's position on tax cuts at a time of increased income inequality. They're irritated because he appears to be set on following the same strategy for the second half of his term that failed in the first half: reaching out to Republicans, getting shot down by a unified GOP, and getting no credit for trying. Outgoing Ohio governor Ted Strickland put it this way in an interview with Sam Stein of the Huffington Post: "I saw what CNN said after that meeting yesterday. ... The president said he should have been willing to work with the GOP earlier. What? After all of this you don't realize these people want to destroy you and your agenda? How many times do you have to be, you know, slapped in the face?"*
Rep. Paul Ryan may be the featured character in the latest chapter of the liberal history of this presidency—call it How Obama Is Getting Schooled by Republicans. Paul Krugman calls Ryan a "flimflam man" for his ideas about balancing the budget, but last January, when Obama met with House Republicans, he called the Wisconsin lawmaker a "pretty sincere guy" whose "roadmap" for balancing the budget was a "serious proposal." This was seen as an attempt to kindle a little bipartisan goodwill. Today I gave Ryan, who will be chairman of the budget committee in January, an opportunity to return the favor. At a breakfast with reporters hosted by the Christian Science Monitor, I asked him whether he thought the lack of bipartisan cooperation during Obama's first two years was the president's fault alone. Debates about the past are tiresome, but as with budgets, it's instructive to measure each side's baseline view in order to measure future behavior. If they show a little give, they might have it in them to give in the big way Ryan and others say they'll have to in order to get anything done.
Obama had said he could have done more to work with Republicans. Did the GOP share any of the blame?
"No, it's all the Democrats' fault," Ryan said. "We're great. We have halos over our heads," he added sarcastically.
"How do you want me to answer that?" he asked. I told him that truthfully would be fine.
He seemed boxed-in. Even if he believed Republicans shared some blame, he couldn't admit it. "They had to make a decision," he said, referring to the president and Democratic leaders. "Do we work with these Republicans and do we meet in the middle? But we don't have to because we have all the votes. They made a choice to go it on their own, and that's when we had to protect ourselves."
He said he tried to reach out to the White House early in the administration on a health care plan. "We sent a plan to the president, we sent them letters, we called people, we kept trying to talk to them," he said. "It was just a thud." Of the White House, he said, "They don't talk to us."
So Republicans didn't share at all in the blame? I asked, just to be clear. Ryan repeated his answer.
Now, presented with this anecdote, liberals will have a predictable—and not unreasonable—response: And you want to try to work with these people, Mr. President? Observers can disagree over how much blame Obama deserves for the ill will between the parties. But no fair-minded person can think the blame is Obama's alone. Certainly the public doesn't think that. In polls, Republican congressional leaders are more unpopular than Democrats.
Ryan spoke of the need to compromise in the grand budget negotiations to come. He said he didn't want to be doctrinaire:"If you're getting an inch take the inch, even if you're not getting a mile." He also chuckled at the idea of refusing to increase the debt ceiling, something the RNC chairman and some in the Tea Party support. But even if he feels as though he's being reasonable, he's not likely to look that way to Obama's supporters. If he and GOP leaders can't accept a speck of responsibility for the lack of cooperation, then maybe Obama's liberal critics are right. Any deal with these guys is a trap.
Update, Dec. 2, 2010: The comments from Strickland were added after this article was originally published. (Return to the updated sentence.)