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Obama's Outreach To GOP: More Optics Than Opportunity?

Posted: March 6, 2013

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President Obama recently acknowledged that he doesn't have the supernatural powers necessary to do a mind meld, Jedi or otherwise, with Republicans in Congress. But as a dinner invitation shows, he can at least still get meetings with them.

Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire at the Capitol last month. The senators are among a group invited to dine Wednesday with President Obama.

Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire at the Capitol last month. The senators are among a group invited to dine Wednesday with President Obama. Alex Wong

President Obama recently acknowledged the obvious: He doesn't have the supernatural powers necessary to do a mind meld, Jedi or otherwise, with Republican congressional leaders that would lead to pacts on fiscal policy or anything else for that matter.

But if he doesn't have the power to force meetings of the minds with his Republican opponents, he can at least still get meetings with them.

Popping up on the president's schedule all of a sudden was a Wednesday night dinner at a Washington, D.C., hotel with a group of GOP senators.

And the president reportedly hopes to meet soon with House Republicans. It's apparently part of a plan to make his case directly to rank-and-file Republican lawmakers instead of focusing only on their leaders, like House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

There's obviously much to discuss, from finding an alternative to the automatic and indiscriminate spending cuts of the sequester that went into effect March 1 to an understanding on how to keep funding the government past the end of March in order to avoid a shutdown. Then there's the debt ceiling that will need to be raised sometime this summer.

The meetings look like part of a presidential effort to regain a clear upper hand in the public relations battle with Republicans.

Up until the sequester deadline, Obama was mainly focused on raising pressure on congressional Republicans with campaign-style events meant to get the public to side with his approach of deficit reduction through spending cuts and tax revenue over the GOP's focus only on spending cuts.

But some Republicans who first dreaded the sequester came to embrace it. Although the spending cuts are less than a week old, the fact that they didn't immediately cause disruptions equal to the president's warnings made even some Democrats wonder if he hyped the risks.

The president's job approval ratings also fell below 50 percent right around the time the sequester took hold, according to Gallup.

His meetings with Republican lawmakers seem designed to give Obama the ability to argue more credibly that he reached out to the other side to try and find common ground. Even some Democrats have implicitly criticized Obama for not having more face-to-face meetings with Republicans.

It's unlikely to produce much more than optics, however. While individual senators frequently act like free agents, forming themselves into bipartisan "gangs" to try and bridge the gaps on politically divisive and controversial issues, House members generally don't.

More to the point, in both the Senate and the House, the hard partisan lines between the parties, especially on fiscal matters, makes it even more unlikely for Obama to make any real headway.

Also, for congressional Republicans, the path to greater GOP success hasn't been to agree with Obama, but just the opposite. Appearing conciliatory toward the president is about the best way to invite a primary challenge.

Lastly, Obama will most likely make his appeal to the same House GOP members of the non-Tea Party variety who he's likely to work to unseat next year, as he tries to give Democrats a chance to win back the House majority. So those lawmakers might be forgiven if they're somewhat distracted in his presence.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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