Obama On Bipartisanship: 'Doing Nothing, That's Not An Option'

At tonight's press conference, President Obama was asked a few times about "bipartisanship," probably most clearly by Chip Reid:

Question: Thank you, Mr. President. You have often said that bipartisanship is extraordinarily important, overall and in this stimulus package, but now, when we ask your advisers about the lack of bipartisanship so far -- zero votes in the House, three in the Senate -- they say, "Well, it's not the number of votes that matters; it's the number of jobs that will be created."

Is that a sign that you are moving away -- your White House is moving away from this emphasis on bipartisanship?

And what went wrong? Did you underestimate how hard it would be to change the way Washington works?

Obama: Well, I don't think -- I don't think I underestimated it. I don't think the -- the American people underestimated it. They understand that there have been a lot of bad habits built up here in Washington, and it's going to take time to break down some of those bad habits.

You know, when I made a series of overtures to the Republicans, going over to meet with both Republican caucuses, you know, putting three Republicans in my cabinet -- something that is unprecedented -- making sure that they were invited here to the White House to talk about the economic recovery plan, all those were not designed simply to get some short-term votes. They were designed to try to build up some trust over time.

And I think that, as I continue to make these overtures, over time, hopefully that will be reciprocated.

But understand the bottom line that I've got right now, which is what's happening to the people of Elkhart and what's happening across the country. I can't afford to see Congress play the usual political games. What we have to do right now is deliver for the American people.

So my bottom line when it comes to the recovery package is: Send me a bill that creates or saves 4 million jobs. Because everybody has to be possessed with a sense of urgency about putting people back to work, making sure that folks are staying in their homes, that they can send their kids to college.

That doesn't negate the continuing efforts that I'm going to make to listen and engage with my Republican colleagues. And hopefully the tone that I've taken, which has been consistently civil and respectful, will pay some dividends over the long term. There are going to be areas where we disagree, and there are going to be areas where we agree.

As I said, the one concern I've got on the stimulus package, in terms of the debate and listening to some of what's been said in Congress, is that there seems to be a set of folks who -- I don't doubt their sincerity -- who just believe that we should do nothing.

Now, if that's their opening position or their closing position in negotiations, then we're probably not going to make much progress, because I don't think that's economically sound and I don't think what -- that's what the American people expect, is for us to stand by and do nothing.

...

So, you know, we -- we can differ on some of the particulars, but, again, the question I think the American people are asking is, do you just want government to do nothing, or do you want it to do something? If you want it to do something, then we can have a conversation. But doing nothing, that's not an option from my perspective.

Obama's strategy is a long-term one. If Republicans continue to obstruct, they're going to increase their own popularity, because he will have no trouble painting them as the source of their problems. After all, thanks to George W. Bush, they're already predisposed to think so anyway.

Later, Mara Liasson asks a similar question:

Question: Thank you, Mr. President. If it's this hard to get more than a handful of Republican votes on what is relatively easy -- spending tons of money and cutting people's taxes -- when you look down the road at health care, and entitlement reform, and energy reform, those are really tough choices. You're going to be asking some people to get less and some people to pay more.

What do you think you're going to have to do to get more bipartisanship? Are you going to need a new legislative model, bringing in Republicans from the very beginning, getting more involved in the details yourself from the beginning, or using bipartisan commissions? What has this experience with the stimulus led you to think about when you think about these future challenges?

Obama: Well, as I said before, Mara, I think that old habits are hard to break. And we're coming off an election, and I think people want to sort of test the limits of -- of what they can get.

You know, there's a lot of jockeying in this town, and a lot of "who's up and who's down," and positioning for the next election.

And what I've tried to suggest is that this is one of those times where we've got to put that kind of behavior aside, because the American people can't afford it. The people in Elkhart can't afford it. The single mom who's trying to figure out how to keep her house can't afford it.

And whether we're Democrats or Republicans, surely there's got to be some capacity for us to work together, not agree on everything, but at least set aside small differences to get things done.

Now, just in terms of the historic record here, the Republicans were brought in early and were consulted. And you'll remember that, when we initially introduced our framework, they were pleasantly surprised and complimentary about the tax cuts that were presented in that framework. Those tax cuts are still in there.

I mean, I suppose what I could have done is started off with no tax cuts, knowing that I was going to want some, and then let them take credit for all of them, and maybe that's the lesson I learned. But there was consultation; there will continue to be consultation.

One thing that I think is important is to recognize that, because all these -- all these items that you listed are hard, that people have to break out of some of the ideological rigidity and gridlock that we've been carrying around for too long. And let me give you a prime example.

When it comes to how we approach the issue of fiscal responsibility, again, it's a little hard for me to take criticism from folks about this recovery package after they've presided over a doubling of the national debt. I'm not sure they have a lot of credibility when it comes to fiscal responsibility.

Having said that, I think there are a lot of Republicans who are sincere in recognizing that, unless we deal with entitlements in a serious way, the problems we have with this year's deficit and next year's deficit pale in comparison to what we're going to be seeing 10 or 15 years or 20 years down the road.

Both Democrats and Republicans are going to have to think differently in order to come together and solve that problem. I think there are areas like education where some in my party have been too resistant to reform and have argued only money makes a difference.

And there have been others on the Republican side or the conservative side who said, "No matter how much money you spend, nothing makes a difference, so let's just blow up the public school systems."

And I think that both sides are going to have to acknowledge we're going to need more money for new science labs, to pay teachers more effectively, but we're also going to need more reform, which means that we've got to train teachers more effectively, bad teachers need to be fired after being given the opportunity to train effectively, that we should experiment with things like charter schools that are innovating in the classroom, that we should have high standards.

So my whole goal over the next four years is to make sure that, whatever arguments are persuasive and backed up by evidence and facts and proof that they can work, that we are pulling people together around that kind of pragmatic agenda.

And I think that there was an opportunity to do this with this recovery package, because, as I said, although there are some politicians who are arguing that we don't need a stimulus, there are very few economists who are making that argument.

I mean, you've got economists who were advising John McCain, economists who were advisers to George Bush, one and two, all suggesting that we actually needed a serious recovery package.

And so when I hear people just saying, "Ah, we don't need to do anything," "This is a spending bill, not a stimulus bill," without acknowledging that, by definition, part of any stimulus package would include spending -- that's the point -- then what I get a sense of is, is that there's some ideological blockage there that needs to be cleared up.

But I am the eternal optimist. I think that, over time, people respond to civility and -- and rational argument. I think that's what the people of Elkhart and the people around America are looking for. And that's what I'm -- that's the kind of leadership I'm going to try to provide.

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