Republican Critique of the White House 'Obama Only Talks about Change'

Justin Sayfie, a former top aide to Jeb Bush and a seasoned observer of the Republican party, talks to SPIEGEL ONLINE about why Obama's bipartisan efforts have failed and how the Republicans are reinventing themselves.


SPIEGEL ONLINE: Barack Obama promised change in Washington and a more bipartisan approach. But so far, that has not worked. Almost no Republican supported his stimulus bill and the ideological battles between the two US parties appear as fierce as ever.

Barack Obama is finding the bipartisan approach tougher than he hoped.
REUTERS

Barack Obama is finding the bipartisan approach tougher than he hoped.

Justin Sayfie: I'm not sure whether Obama's bipartisan strategy was truly genuine. It's true, the president acted in a bipartisan manner -- he invited Republicans to talks in the Oval Office and organized bipartisan parties to watch football in the White House together. But his outreach was poisoned by the way the Democrats put together the stimulus bill in Congress. I can understand why Republicans feel that Obama only talks about change in Washington so far. There was simply not a lot of dialogue by congressional Democrats with Republicans in the run-up to the stimulus bill. The House and the Senate Democratic leadership were not as open to Republican suggestions as one might think from Obama's bipartisan gestures. The president would have received more Republican support if he had been successful in convincing his fellow Democrats in Congress to act in a more bipartisan way.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: How?

Sayfie: He should have publicly called on the House and Senate Democrats to take Republican input more seriously early in the process. After all, there are real ideological differences between the two parties on the question of whether the current giant public spending is the way out of the crisis or just a huge liability to our federal budget and our children. To Republicans it felt as if they were treated kindly at the White House by Obama -- but when they were back on Capitol Hill, Democrats just ignored them again.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Was it naïve of Obama to even promise more bipartisanship? Can this ever be achieved in famously partisan Washington?

Sayfie: No, it was not naïve. Obama has the popularity to try it. It was not a flawed idea -- it was flawed in its execution. I think there was a real lack of recognition on his part how deeply partisan Congress can be and how deeply partisan it is right now. And Obama's attempt is tricky anyway: Even some members of his own party are not crazy about his bipartisan approach. For instance, the left-wing blogs were very happy that Judd Gregg, the Republican candidate for the Commerce Department in Obama's cabinet, suddenly withdrew his candidacy last week. They instantly wrote: Now Obama can finally appoint a Democrat to that position instead of offering it to a Republican.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Given the frustration on both sides, is Obama's bipartisan effort already doomed?

Sayfie: My hope is that the Obama White House has learned from its experience with the stimulus legislation on how to achieve successfully bipartisanship. I do think it is still possible. Most Republicans in Washington are willing to be part of the solution. But again, if you are locked out of the legislative process, having drinks and watching football parties together in the White House is meaningless.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: The flat refusal to cooperate is a tricky strategy for the Republicans, however. Democrats are already starting to blame them for not being willing to do anything to solve the current crisis.

Sayfie: The key question is: Who will frame the reasons for Republican opposition to the stimulus bill? Republicans in Congress are trying to present themselves as guardians of fiscal responsibility who prevented unnecessary federal spending. Democrats will try to frame them as obstructionists who refused to act swiftly in the middle of a historic economic crisis. Whoever wins this debate will do better in the next Congressional election in 2010.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Will the Republicans have a new leader by then? It is hard at the moment to figure out who speaks for the Republicans.

Sayfie: Right now, the law of the jungle rules. The Republican leadership is undefined, many prospective leaders are competing with each other. But the party is trying to reinvent itself and to put forward people who reflect a different image of the party than the last presidential candidate, John McCain. The newly elected party chairman Michael Steele does not look like McCain, he is African-American. The governor from Louisiana, Bobby Jindal, who will give the Republican response to Obama's speech to Congress on February 24, is only 37 years old and Indian-American. He certainly does not look like John McCain. There is a lot in motion. And one should not forget: Every president has a honeymoon. But that will fade and the Democratic Congress is not at all popular, even now. Republicans will continue to define themselves and their new leaders while they are in the wilderness and eventually they will bounce back.

Interview conducted by Gregor Peter Schmitz.

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