What the stimulus battle tells us about Obama

WASHINGTON Mon Feb 9, 2009 4:21am EST

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama showed he is willing to cast aside talk of bipartisanship and flex Democratic muscle to push opposition Republicans out of the way in the battle over a U.S. economic stimulus.

Obama began his presidency declaring a desire to work with both sides of the divided aisle. Two weeks later, he found himself caught in the middle of a congressional debate over the size and direction of a behemoth stimulus package.

To the chagrin of some of his own Democrats, Obama welcomed a Republican push to make changes in a $819 billion package that emerged from the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives without a single Republican vote.

Senate Republicans had some good ideas, he told NBC last Sunday, "and I want to make sure those ideas are incorporated."

But by Thursday, the legislation began to get bogged down in partisan battles and polls showed American support for it dropping in the face of Republican charges the plan was stuffed with wasteful Democratic spending items.

Obama abruptly changed his tune, reverting to some of the rhetoric he used on the campaign trail to win the White House.

Americans "did not vote for the false theories of the past, and they didn't vote for phony arguments and petty politics. They didn't vote for the status quo -- they sent us here to bring change," he told House Democrats on Thursday at a retreat in Williamsburg, Virginia.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Friday Obama was not giving up on bipartisanship, but was driven by the need for quick action on the stimulus plan to shore up a sinking U.S. economy.

"I think we've seen arguments throughout the past few weeks -- and certainly the past week -- denoting maybe that we don't have to act as quickly as the president believes we should," he said.

'WE WON, YOU LOST'

Democratic strategist Doug Schoen said Obama's shift in tone reflected a battle that turned out to be tougher than he thought it would be.

"Here's the analysis that I drew immediately: Ideally he wants bipartisanship. If that doesn't work, 'We won, you lost. You're discredited. We're not.' That's kind of his fallback position," Schoen said.

An original goal of getting overwhelming bipartisan support for a stimulus package collapsed in a fight over what would better stimulate the economy, with Republicans seeking to cut out some of the spending.

"My problem with the stimulus package is it doesn't stimulate. It spends," Republican Senator John McCain, who lost the November election to Obama, said at one point. "It's way, way too much money."

By the end of the week, Democrats were simply trying to get to the required 60 Senate votes that would allow them to overcome any procedural roadblocks thrown up by the Republicans.

Republican and Democratic moderates eventually worked out a compromise plan for a roughly $800 billion bill, which the Senate is expected to put to a vote on Tuesday. Negotiations will then resume on how to combine the House and Senate versions into a final package -- which could mean more partisan recriminations ahead.

Norm Ornstein, a political expert at the American Enterprise Institute, said it did not seem Obama was giving up on his goal of bipartisanship because he was still talking to Republicans who were involved in brokering a compromise deal.

"He clearly wants to try to make this bipartisan if he can, but I think what he saw was that it was veering against him and that he wanted to both back up the spirits of his own party and give people the sense that he was not going to be rolled over," Ornstein said.

Linda Fowler, a political science professor at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, said in the long run Obama may have more trouble with his own Democrats, who are feeling emboldened by their large majorities in both houses of Congress.

"I think the real question is how he can sort of make this into a situation that looks like he won, that fulfills his promises while nevertheless accepting the inevitable that this bill isn't very beautiful. It's a really ugly stepchild," she said.

(Editing by Doina Chiacu)

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