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Swerdlick: Why the GOP won't work with Barack Obama

With so many pundits declaring that President Barack Obama's second-term agenda is dead on arrival, you could be forgiven if you mistook the last few days for the first week of May 2009.

Back then, there was already angst that in Obama's first first 100 days, unemployment briefly spiked to 10 percent and the stock market tumbled into the 6,000s, and Republicans were complaining about the president's "apology tour" through Europe, his handshake with now deceased Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez at the Summit of the Americas and the enormity of the stimulus that economists now say was too small.

Oh, and let's not forget about those Somali pirates.

Fast-forward to 2013: The New York Times' Maureen Dowd is putting the onus on Obama for a "dunderheaded Congress" that won't "behave"; the Wall Street Journal's Daniel Henninger complains Obama is guilty of "presidential followership" on Syria; and The Washington Post's Dana Milbank argues "Obama has already lost control of the agenda" since he appears to have failed to single-handedly overcome a Republican filibuster of gun control legislation.

Never mind that gun control wasn't on the president's legislative agenda until December's tragic shooting in Newtown, Conn. -- and that he has yet to foreclose any of his options in Syria.

And never mind that at this point in Obama's first term, hardly anyone outside of Massachusetts had ever heard of Romneycare, and almost no one really believed that we'd ever find and kill terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden.

But from day 101 on, many of the goals of the Obama administration eventually came to pass.

Yes, he's had some notable setbacks on Capitol Hill in his second first 100 days, but as Obama himself said in last week's press briefing, rumors of his demise are probably exaggerated.

Somehow, in between filibusters and rummaging around in the White House attic for his original long-form birth certificate, in his first term the president brought the Iraq War to a dignified conclusion; chipped away at unemployment - that's still far too high, even at 7.5 percent; and, with the Federal Reserve's help, nursed the Dow Jones industrial average into the respectable 14,000s.

It's fair to point out his flip-flops on gay marriage and the Guantanamo Bay prison (landing both times, in my opinion, on the right position); and if, three years from now, there's no mortgage relief, we're still in Afghanistan and the labor force participation rate sits at 63.3 percent, then yes, Obama takes his share of the blame.

But whether you accept conventional wisdom that he hasn't cracked enough congressional heads -- Lyndon Johnson style -- or you believe Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., when he says that gun control was filibustered "because the president wanted to do it," when it comes to legislative gridlock, Obama has clearly had plenty of help from legislators.

Even though, of course, it doesn't have to be this way. Recall that right after Obama got "shellacked" in the 2010 midterms, he struck a win-win deal with Congress, caving on the Bush-era tax rates while getting in return the repeal of "Don't ask, don't tell," extended benefits for the long-term unemployed and an up-or-down vote on the DREAM Act (ultimately defeated).

This could have been the model for future negotiations between Obama and the GOP, right? No matter where you stand on the merits of the deal, it was a classic case in which both sides gave up something they didn't want in exchange for something they did want. That's proof they know how to negotiate.

But then you further recall that initially, Republicans crowed and Democrats howled about that deal -- until the story changed, and Obama came out looking like the moderate man in the middle. Once that theme solidified, Republicans left the sandbox, took their toys and went home.

Right now, among many other issues, there are universal background checks and immigration reform on the table that can be exchanged for a budget deal and revamping the tax code. But a deal like that doesn't give congressional Republicans the one thing they apparently want more than a flatter tax code or more sensible budget cuts -- it doesn't help them throw sand on Obama.

Even Toomey admits that Republicans are trying to make Obama look bad. But it's even worse than that. They're not interested in looking good themselves if it means that he looks good, too.

Swerdlick is a contributing editor at The Root.


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