Rocky start to second term raises questions about Obama approach

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By Tom Cohen, CNN

WASHINGTON (CNN) — Less than seven weeks into his second term, President Barack Obama seems mired in the same uncertainty over how to deal with recalcitrant and at times obstructionist Republicans that dominated his volatile first term.

While the president and his team insist he is the reasonable one in the endless debate over taxes and spending, the failure last week to deliver a deal with Congress to avert forced spending cuts has harmed Obama’s poll numbers and raised questions about his strategy.

Critics cite a hyper-partisan blame campaign by Obama that stretched and at times obliterated the truth about the forced spending cuts, as well as the eventual political showdown with congressional Republicans last Friday that yielded nothing but public confusion and disenchantment.

Now the president appears to be calibrating his campaign-style efforts to generate public outrage against Republicans by reaching out to GOP legislators, starting with dinner on Wednesday night with 11 GOP senators.

Obama also will go across town to the U.S. Capitol next week to hold separate meetings he requested with Republicans in the House and Senate.

“We need to have this dialogue,” said one of the dinner invitees, veteran Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who lost to Obama in the 2008 presidential election. “I’m glad the president is doing it, I think it’s very helpful we have continued discussions.”

While the main focus of current Washington debate involves fiscal issues, Obama also seeks to work out compromises on other priorities including immigration reform and tighter gun laws.

A White House official told CNN on Wednesday that the president’s outreach was a “change in approach” following the deadline-driven atmosphere of the previous week, when the forced spending cuts took effect on March 1.

It follows a series of speeches by Obama in February intended to raise pressure on congressional Republicans to accept his insistence on more tax revenue as part of any plan to replace the forced spending cuts or reach a broader deficit reduction agreement.

No agreement ensued, and now Obama refers to finding a “caucus of common sense” that would include Republicans willing to go against their leadership’s unyielding opposition to any kind of further tax increases after they agreed in January to return rates on top income earners to higher levels of the 1990s.

Republicans including House Speaker John Boehner argue that Obama only wants to make them look bad to give Democrats a chance to win back control of the House in the 2014 elections.

They question whether the president truly wants an agreement on fiscal issues, or if he merely seeks to depict Republicans as obstructionist while continuing to push his campaign themes of equal opportunity and shared burden from last year’s election.

“We’re expecting over the next 22 months to be the focus of this administration as they attempt to annihilate the Republican Party,” Boehner said in a January speech. “And let me just tell you, I do believe that is their goal — to just shove us into the dustbin of history.”

To Brown University political scientist Wendy Schiller, Obama needs to work harder for results instead of remaining in election campaign mode.

“Spending energy for the next year-and-a-half doing nothing and blaming Republicans on the long shot you get the House back is woefully misguided and bad for the country,” Schiller told CNN. “Americans did not re-elect President Obama to play the partisan blame game. They re-elected him to run the country, and that is what he should be doing.”

She cited the president’s series of recent speeches that warned of myriad troubles including job losses, released criminals, reduced security and other threats if Congress failed to replace or soften the forced spending cuts, known in Washington jargon as sequestration.

Several claims turned out to be excessive, as noted by GOP critics and media fact-checkers, putting Obama and the administration on the defensive.

“His big gamble was to overplay the impact of the sequester on the daily lives of most Americans,” Schiller said, adding it failed to effectively sway public opinion because “when people can’t see the damage, they don’t worry about the damage.”

At the same time, Republicans are putting more pressure on Obama by better tailoring their opposition to his policies instead of repeating the sweeping rejection and calls for repeal that characterized last year’s election campaign.

“Republicans are being more strategic in how they’re approaching the budget,” said Darrell West, the vice president and director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution. “As opposed to saying ‘no’ to everything, they are picking and choosing their fights.”

A CNN compilation of recent national polls shows a drop in Obama’s approval rating to below 50% in recent weeks as the debate over the forced spending cuts reached its zenith.

In addition, a CBS News poll Monday showed that more Americans blame Republicans in Congress than Obama and Democrats for the failure to avert the forced spending cuts, but the gap between the two has narrowed compared to earlier polls by other organizations.

The results come as the government and nation wrestle with the $85 billion in forced spending cuts over the rest of fiscal year 2013, which ends on September 30.

The mandatory, across-the-board cuts to defense and other discretionary government spending — but not entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare — occurred after Obama and Congress were unable to work out a compromise to replace or avert them.

They amount to roughly 9% for a broad range of non-defense programs and 13% for the Pentagon over the remaining seven months of the fiscal year.

While both sides oppose the government-wide nature of the cuts, with no leeway for shifting funds to protect specific programs, conservatives argue the total amount is a manageable slice in spending while Democrats say it will cause unnecessary harm.

The harshest impacts won’t be evident until April at the earliest, but economists and leaders of both parties warn the cuts will slow the economy and cause pain for many Americans.

One immediate impact came Tuesday when the White House announced it was canceling all tours because of the forced spending cuts.

“Due to staffing reductions resulting from sequestration we regret to inform that White House tours will be canceled effective Saturday March 9, 2013, until further notice,” said an automated message at the visitor center’s hotline. “Unfortunately we will not be able to reschedule affected tours.”

Schiller called the move “monumentally stupid,” saying people will blame Obama instead of House Republicans. She added it also “smacks of such elitism not to understand how that might ruin a trip to (Washington) for a family that planned it for a while.”

The president has opened himself to other accusations of elitism, including a bachelor weekend in Florida last month to play golf with Tiger Woods while the first lady and their two daughters were on a ski holiday.

Republicans have targeted the Florida golf trip for its cost to taxpayers at a time of fiscal austerity, with one GOP legislator proposing that no such travel by the president should be funded by taxpayers until the White House tours are resumed.

The next political showdown is set for March 27, the deadline for Congress to authorize more government funding or bring a partial shutdown.

On Wednesday, the House passed its version of the funding authorization proposal, known as a continuing resolution, which includes the forced spending cuts but softens their impacts on the military and veterans affairs programs.

It now goes to the Senate,where leaders of both parties said they expect changes to the House plan by Democrats, leading to further negotiations in an effort to avoid a partial government shutdown when current government funding authorization expires in three weeks’ time.

Meanwhile, Obama made clear his battles with Republicans are far from over. After Senate Republicans on Wednesday blocked his nominee for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia for a second time, Obama said in a statement he was “deeply disappointed.”

“Today’s vote continues the Republican pattern of obstruction,” the president said. “My judicial nominees wait more than three times as long on the Senate floor to receive a vote than my predecessor’s nominees.”

Obama is the only president in recent memory never to have successfully placed a nominee on the DC Circuit, which handles many high-profile appeals, including executive authority to fight terrorism and broader congressional power.

CNN’s Jim Acosta, Dan Lothian, William Mears, Adam Aigner-Treworgy and Ashley Killough contributed to this report.