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Even cynics can hope for bipartisanship

By Gloria Borger, CNN Senior Political Analyst
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Gloria Borger: Bipartisan leadership meeting at the White House fast forgotten
  • Senate GOP soon threatens to block action on every bill till Bush tax cuts extended
  • Borger: Serious work of debt commission appears sidelined by politics
  • GOP, Dems can gain by moving forward; Obama could be transformational, she writes

Editor's note: Gloria Borger is a senior political analyst for CNN, appearing regularly on CNN's "The Situation Room," "AC360°," "John King, USA" and "State of the Union."

(CNN) -- As the saying goes, even paranoids have enemies. A Washington corollary: Even cynics have reason to be cynical.

Consider the latest Washington Kabuki: the overdue bipartisan leadership meeting at the White House. To prepare, and disarm the GOP, the president orders a federal pay freeze the day before the session. It's an easy gimme: The GOP has already proposed it, the voters don't like the government much and the White House can point to it as evidence of its willingness to work together.

Then comes the session, which proceeds politely, much like the first day at school. The president, who has just been thumped in the election, allows that he regrets not reaching out to the GOP more in his first two years. He promises to do a better job (never mind that he hardly has any choice in the matter). And the assembled agree to put a group together, led by the Treasury secretary and the budget director, to start dealing with the fate of the Bush-era tax cuts. The principals even throw the staff out for 35 minutes to chat alone; a possible session at Camp David is suggested.

The Democrats emerge, saying the Republicans seem "more serious." The Republicans emerge, saying the Democrats seem "less arrogant." The public is probably pleased that things seem to be going swimmingly.

Yet within 24 hours, the Senate Republicans decide a to put the Democrats on notice that they're not going to do anything until they get what they want on the extension of the tax cuts. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid responds by saying Republicans "have simply put in writing a political strategy ... namely obstruct, delay, obstruct, delay action on critical matters and then blame the Democrats ... very cynical but very obvious, very transparent."

Ya think?

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And what about the debt commission which has worked so ardently for months, looking for ways to restore the nation's fiscal health? There's actually a serious plan that involves serious spending caps in both military and domestic programs and cutbacks in popular tax breaks, not to mention entitlement reforms. The result? Republicans balk at the notion of tax increases and the Democrats balk at proposed reductions in health care and Social Security.

The final vote is delayed. In order for the plan to reach the floor of Congress, it needs the support of 14 out of 18 commission members. My sources tell me that 10 votes for the measure -- which includes six nonelected panel members -- would, at this point, be a major victory.

The cynics triumph again.

But wait. It's not all lost, at least not yet. If the Republicans overplay their hand, there could be hell to pay. And if the president doesn't step up and lead, he could suffer, too.

In other words, there's mutual self-interest here in getting some things done. Political will is a moving target. Public opinion will determine the parameters of the possible. If leaders remain scared to lead, the only hope left is that they might at least become lagging indicators of the public's determination to solve problems.

In many ways, this is President Obama's moment of truth. He's never experienced defeat at the hands of conservative opponents before. We have no benchmark to help us figure out how he will react in this situation. As a result, says former Bill Clinton policy adviser William Galston, Obama's next State of the Union speech "could be the defining moment of the Obama presidency," just as Clinton's 1995 speech defined the rest of his term.

"Clinton made a clear choice," says Galston. "He said 'Here is the Bill Clinton who ran, I'm back and I now remember why you elected me.' "

Obama is no longer the leader of a simple Democratic majority, content to announce policies that please just one party. He's now Obama, a president who stands virtually alone -- as a bridge.

Obama's intention, when elected, was to become a transformational president. If he decides to seize the initiative, and lead the way to stabilize the economy and the fiscal bleeding, he can actually transform politics. Maybe not the way he intended, but the way the public is demanding.

Even cynics can have some hope.

The opinions in this commentary are solely those of Gloria Borger.