Obama Determined To Work On Bipartisanship

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Republican Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire says he wasn't "a good pick" for the Obama administration. The White House said Thursday it was relieved that Gregg made the decision before he was confirmed as commerce secretary. Obama said Gregg's decision won't keep him from working with the GOP.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

NPR's national political correspondent, Mara Liasson, was traveling with President Obama yesterday, and she joins us now. And Mara, I gather you're fighting off a cold, so thanks for being with us.

LIASSON: Oh, it's nice to be here, Renee.

MONTAGNE: So, how did the president take the news that Senator Gregg was bowing out? It sounds like Mr. Obama can't buy a bit of bipartisanship.

LIASSON: Well, that is the obvious storyline - that Obama can't seem to find any bipartisanship, even though he came to Washington searching for it. Of course, it's a storyline that he himself created. But he does keep reaching his hand out, and it gets rejected or bit. He couldn't get very many votes, Republican votes, for the stimulus plan, and now one of his high-profile Republican picks for the Cabinet drops out. But he does say he's going to keep trying - as you heard him in Scott's piece - he does say he's going to work with Gregg on deficit reduction, and he'll be part of this fiscal responsibility summit that the president is passing. And although, in the end, it is more important for him to get Republican votes than to get Republican Cabinet members, it sure looks like he is having a little trouble getting this bipartisan thing up and running.

MONTAGNE: Well, given that Judd Gregg sounded quite reasonable and had a pretty solid explanation, how much of a blow is this to the administration?

LIASSON: Look, it is a blow to the administration. They were caught off-guard, although as you heard, Obama knew he had misgivings. But the president said he only found out about Gregg's decisions yesterday. The first statement that the White House put out by Robert Gibbs was very tough.

It said Senator Gregg reached out to the president and offered his name for secretary of Commerce. In other words, they think this reflects badly on Gregg. But it does lose them the bragging rights of having yet another big Republican in the Cabinet. Also, getting Gregg was a political masterstroke because he is an experienced legislator. He's like a quarterback on the Republican team in the Senate, and that would've been denying their opponents a big player.

And even just on a more basic level, he is the third Cabinet secretary nominee to withdraw.

MONTAGNE: Well, I guess there's never a good time for bad news, but the administration, unfortunately for it, did have a plan for today, which is selling the stimulus bill. And it's not the first time that it's been thrown off message on this huge piece of legislation.

LIASSON: No. You know, when Tom Daschle dropped out, the president had a round of network interviews scheduled to promote his stimulus plan. Yesterday, he was taking a kind of pre-victory lap by going out in the country and selling the stimulus plan to people. He was at a Caterpillar plant in Peoria that had recently announced it would be laying 22,000 people.

And even the president of Caterpillar stepped all over his story because a couple of days ago, he had said that if the stimulus passed, maybe he would be able to rehire some of those 22,000 people. But as soon as the president left the plant, the Caterpillar president, Jim Owens, said - he stepped all over the talking points - he said, yes, but the stimulus will take time to work and in the meantime, we may have to lay off even more people. So, not a great one-day news cycle for the White House.

MONTAGNE: And Mara, yesterday was President Lincoln's birthday, and that was also supposed to be a major theme of the day.

LIASSON: And it was. He made a series of speeches about Lincoln's birthday. Last night, he was in Springfield at the 200th birthday dinner for Lincoln. And he managed to work into his speech a kind of reference to his own persistence and often-unrequited search for unity and bipartisanship - which, of course, is the big Lincoln theme.

And he described Lincoln, who had served just a single term in Congress, sitting possibly in his law office, his feet on a cluttered desk, his sons playing around him.

President BARACK OBAMA: His clothes a bit too small to fit his uncommon frame, maybe wondering if somebody might call him up and ask him to be Commerce secretary.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LIASSON: So, you can see that the president was actually in pretty good humor about this. And I was on the plane with him yesterday, and he did seem to be his usual calm and unflappable self about all this. He said he was very optimistic, although he said, in a very deadpan way, I've still got to get my Commerce secretary, though.

So, you know, the White House is having a lot of growing pains. I mean, they've been in an office just for a few weeks and already, they've had a lot of glitches with Cabinet secretaries, either with tax problems or dropping out. He clearly has searched for Republican support on his first big legislative initiative - has been relatively fruitless.

But look, this is a very long game, and the White House says over and over again they shouldn't be judged just by what's happening in the first or second inning.

MONTAGNE: And thank you, Mara, for joining us. I hope you're going back to bed now with a cup of tea.

LIASSON: Yes, I will try.

MONTAGNE: Mara Liasson is NPR's national political correspondent.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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