Since his re-election triumph in November, Obama has used his political capital to harangue his foes, holding rallies across the country at which he accused rival Republicans of obstructing legislation and serving the rich.
His strategy worked up to a point — securing new higher tax rates for the wealthy as he pocketed a political win in December over the fiscal cliff showdown.
But with the glow of his re-election waning, Obama came up short in the sequester clash last week as Republicans refused to bend on raising taxes — and $85 billion in economy-sapping austerity was set in motion.
Two years of incessant budget melodrama between Obama and his foes on Capitol Hill have poisoned the political well but done little to tackle the debt load endangering America’s future prosperity.
Now, Obama and conservative Republicans in the House of Representatives are left staring across a seemingly unbridgeable ideological divide.
Since Obama’s ambitious second term agenda must clear a divided Congress, the onus is on the president to plot a way through Washington’s dysfunction.
So Obama, who disdains the superficiality of backslapping politics, has embarked on a charm offensive — and on Wednesday night he bought dinner for a dozen Republican senators out of his own pocket.
At an expensive hotel, Obama supped with senators John McCain, Lindsey Graham and others, vocal foes who have also expressed frustration at being stuck in the political purgatory of a Washington where nothing gets done.
Next week, the president will make a rare foray into enemy territory on Capitol Hill to address Republicans from both the Senate and the House.
For now, Obama appears to have dropped the “outside” game of campaigning to move public opinion against Republicans, instead probing whether there is any space for a deal on key issues.
Steven Smith, a former congressional staffer who is now a professor of political science at Washington University, St Louis, said the president had little choice but to try to change the political climate in Washington.
“If you can’t deal with the House Republicans in the current political environment — see if you can change the political environment,” he said.
“What (Obama) is hoping is that Republicans in the Senate can start serving almost as opinion leaders for a new way of tackling these fiscal challenges.”
Obama is courting Republican senators who may be willing to deal on issues like the national debt, the deficit and growing costs threatening entitlement programs like health care for the elderly.
“The President is interested in finding the members of the ‘caucus of common sense,’” said White House spokesman Jay Carney.
A person familiar with Obama’s thinking said the White House believes there may be a window for action since — after the sequester and fiscal cliff dramas — Washington is finally not on the cusp of an immediate crisis.
Obama aides also think some Senate Republicans may be ready to compromise — a feeling bolstered by Graham’s recent comment that he would swap $600 billion in new revenues in return for entitlement reform.
It is not the first time that Obama has tried dialogue with Republicans — he tried unsuccessfully to conclude a grand bargain with House Speaker John Boehner aimed at $4 trillion in deficit reduction during his first term.
Obama says that offer is still on the table, but so frayed are his relations with Boehner that it seems doubtful the two of them share the necessary trust to strike a bargain.
Should he fare better with Senate Republicans, Obama hopes his new dance partners can build pressure on their brethren in the House to compromise, which might also ease the way for other top initiatives, like immigration reform.
Republicans, who have long accused Obama of hectoring them, welcome his change of tone.
“Where this goes, I don’t know,” said Graham, who recently met Obama along with McCain at the White House.
“I do believe (in) what the president has been doing lately, getting off the campaign trail (and) back into the normal way of doing business up here, of talking to each other.”
Moderate Republican Senator Susan Collins agreed.
“The important thing is, for the first time in a very long time, the president appears to be doing some outreach to both Republicans and Democrats, and that’s long overdue,” she said.
Wednesday’s dinner might have been a good start, but such is the philosophical gulf between Obama and Republicans that any deal still seems a long shot.
And with mid-term congressional elections in 2014, the window for bipartisan comity is short.
But Wednesday night’s dinner did provide an unusual spectacle in Washington these days — political foes actually talking to one another.