WASHINGTON — Greetings from the nation’s capital, where I’m spending this week to meet with members of Georgia’s congressional delegation before attending the American Conservative Union’s annual CPAC conference. (I had some technical issues when I first arrived yesterday, but those have been resolved.)
I’m early into my schedule on Capitol Hill, where I’m spending most of Tuesday and Wednesday, but there’s a buzz about President Obama’s outreach to congressional Republicans — and whether it’s real.
Last week, of course, Obama dined with a dozen Republicans and called several more. This week, he’s meeting with both the Republican and Democratic caucuses in both the House and the Senate — not part of the routine for this president. All of these moves have come since the automatic spending cuts known as sequestration took effect March 1, after Obama and the GOP couldn’t agree on a substitute package.
Obama has talked a good game about bipartisanship before, but some folks on the Hill say this time might — might– be different, in part because of polls like this new one:
If President Barack Obama had piled up political capital with his impressive re-election, it’s largely gone.
His approval rating has dropped to the lowest level in more than a year, with more voters now turning thumbs down on his performance than thumbs up, according to a new McClatchy-Marist poll. The measure of how much people like him also has dropped.
He’s still vastly more popular than Congress, particularly congressional Republicans. But in the biggest political clash of the year — over the federal budget and how to curb deficits — voters split 44 percent to 42 percent between preferring Congress or Obama.
The sky didn’t fall after sequestration (although lines to get into congressional office buildings today apparently were longer than usual due to budget cuts; I didn’t notice much of a difference flying out of Hartsfield-Jackson yesterday). As I suggested beforehand, the public reaction to the cuts was going to have a huge bearing on what happened next. If Americans really aren’t experiencing unbearable pain and blaming it on Congress, the president will be under more pressure to try to meet the GOP in the middle.
All the comments so far are very much hedged: The partisanship of the past few years means there’s limited trust on both sides. But Sen. Johnny Isakson offered an anecdote that reflects why some people wonder if this “charm initiative” (Isakson’s term) is different from previous ones.
“I’ve been here while he’s been president five years, and he’s called me three, four, maybe five times total, never over two minutes,” Isakson told me in his office Tuesday morning. “And this [phone call last week] was a 20-minute call, where he was letting me talk more than him.”
I asked Isakson what would indicate to him, when Obama meets with GOP senators Thursday, that the president is serious this time.
“I don’t want to oversimplify it, but — and I told him this on the phone — if you don’t put entitlements on the table, you’re never going to get your arms around the deficit and the growing debt,” he said. Specifically, Isakson wants to know if the president is prepared to negotiate about “formulas and eligibility” for Medicare — meaning who is covered, and to what extent — rather than just reducing reimbursements to doctors.
I’ll have more from Isakson and other Georgia members when time permits.
– By Kyle Wingfield