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Borger: Time for Obama to be The Decider

  • Story Highlights
  • Despite trips to Capitol Hill, Obama got no GOP votes on House stimulus bill
  • White House adviser says it's important that administration is making effort
  • Borger: Republicans winning spin wars so far on economic stimulus argument
  • Obama doesn't want to start first legislative effort without GOP on board, Borger says
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By Gloria Borger
CNN Senior Political Analyst
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- So far in this new presidency, there's been a lot of what we in Washington call "outreach." As in: outreach to labor, outreach to governors and, most of all, outreach to Republicans.

President Obama found himself with no Republican votes for his economic package when it passed the House.

President Obama found himself with no Republican votes for his economic package when it passed the House.

In fact, President Obama is spending so much time reaching out on Capitol Hill, it almost looks like he's still in the Senate.

Even so, it's probably immensely meaningful, in a Washington sort of way, that Obama has traveled up Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol to call on the GOP, again and again. After all, members of Congress just love to be flattered.

But after all of the jawboning and all of the spending concessions, including the removal of money for some social programs of questionable "stimulative" value, Obama still found himself with no Republican votes for his economic package when it passed the House.

Not to worry, says one sanguine White House adviser. "It's just as important that we are conducting ourselves differently."

Not quite.

Obama may have great tone and touch, but the Republicans are winning the spin wars -- at least this round. Not because the public agrees with conservatives who want more tax cuts. It's because the public wants spending -- only they expect it to work.

Unlike some of those House Democrats, most folks aren't focusing on using the package as a way to re-engineer social policy. They want to create more jobs to fix the problem at hand. And they would like Congress to at least try to agree on some big ways to do it.

Here's the problem for Obama: He has issued an important promissory note to the American people. He said he would work with -- and win the support of -- Republicans; that he will be bipartisan. He can't afford to lose all of them out of the box. Video Watch more on Obama's strategy to get a bipartisan bill »

Sure, there are some Republicans whose ideological blinders will never allow them to vote with Obama. But there may be about 30 in the House and another dozen in the Senate he can win over.

But here's the rub: He's going to have to choose which side he is on. He's got to decide between the more liberal spending plan endorsed by House Democrats, or a plan bound to be much smaller on the spending side in the Senate. And it's not just about numbers; it's about what he and his economic team believe will work, and will work the fastest.

That's going to mean saying "no" to some in his own party. In fact, you might argue that, in his polite way, Obama gave too much power to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi at the outset -- allowing eight years of pent-up Democratic demand for spending to show up (in one way or another) in this stimulus bill. After all, after years of living in a pay-as-you-go budget world, spending with abandon clearly had its attractions. Video Watch more on the fight over the stimulus plan »

But some of the spending also gave Republicans the opportunity to claim that Democrats were trying to restore their political priorities, and not just jobs, which is exactly what they were doing.

So the House Democrats had to take out money for contraceptives. And Senate Democrats decided to drop two controversial spending programs, including $75 million for anti-smoking programs and $400 million for HIV prevention. All laudable. But not now, not in this bill.

Now Obama will be left trying to use the Senate version of the stimulus package as a hammer against the House. And, no doubt about it, Democratic senators will proceed differently, largely because the Senate itself is a more center-seeking institution than the House. Moderate Democrats like Montana's Jon Tester or Virginia's Jim Webb won't march in the House direction; moderate Republicans like Maine Sens. Susan Collins or Olympia Snowe won't think tax cuts are enough to get the economy moving again.

In the end, Obama doesn't want to start off like President Bill Clinton in 1993.

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Clinton's first deficit reduction package -- arguably the most important legislation of his presidency -- was passed without any Republican votes. It set the strident and partisan tone for the next four years.

That's not what Obama has in mind.

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