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Bipartisanship: How is President Obama's relationships with the red and blue of Capitol Hill?

Linda FeldmannThe Christian Science Monitor

Faced with criticism that he doesn’t reach out enough to both political allies and foes, President Obama maintained in his press conference Wednesday that he has lots of “good relationships” on Capitol Hill, on both sides of the aisle, though he promised some “self-reflection” over how he can do better.

Then Mr. Obama also threw out a warning: “There are probably going to be still some very sharp differences,” he said. “And as I said during the campaign, there are going to be times where there are fights. And I think those are fights that need to be had.”

With negotiations set to begin Friday with Republican leaders over how to keep the nation from going over a “fiscal cliff” on Jan. 1 – tax increases plus deep spending cuts – it’s easy to see why Obama would inject that caveat. He is adamant that the wealthiest Americans pay higher taxes and that the remaining 98 percent don’t.

If Obama is optimistic, he isn’t showing it. But the American people clearly are not. Four years ago, right after a campaign that was all about hope and change, 54 percent of Americans said they thought the Obama administration would be able to “heal political divisions in this country.” Now, that number is 33 percent, according to a USA Today/Gallup poll released Thursday.

Of the 13 goals that Gallup asked about, healing partisanship was seen with the least optimism – and registered the sharpest decline in optimism of all the issues polled. Optimism has risen on bringing home US troops from Afghanistan (now 72 percent, up from 58 percent) and on keeping the US safe from terrorism (now 65 percent, up from 62 percent). But on most issues, including the environment and unemployment, optimism has declined.

“Americans were generally more positive about the potential of the new Obama administration's ability to accomplish most of these goals in November 2008, just after Obama was elected for the first time,” writes Frank Newport, editor in chief of Gallup. “This optimism no doubt reflects in part voters' hopes for any new president and the poor economic conditions that were extant in 2008.”

A new poll from the Pew Research Center also reflects an American electorate than has come down to earth a bit since the heady days after Obama’s first election. Some 56 percent of voters predict Obama will have a successful second term, down from the 67 percent who predicted four years ago that he would have a successful first term.

But Americans are less optimistic about prospects for improving bipartisanship. More than half of voters expect relations between Democrats and Republicans will either stay the same (52 percent) or get worse (14 percent) over the next year.

“Moreover, both Republicans and Democrats send mixed signals about their desire for partisan cooperation,” Pew reports. “About as many Republicans want party leaders to stand up to Obama (50 percent) as to work with him to get things done (46 percent). Democrats are somewhat more amenable to partisan compromise, but 42 percent favor Obama standing up to GOP leaders.”

Maybe the lowered expectations are a good thing for Obama. Just as he says he’s learned a thing or two from his first term, voters, too, have learned that he’s not a miracle-worker.

“I hope and intend to be an even better president in the second term than I was in the first,” Obama said at his press conference.

But he also sounded a note of realism – and indicated he had done a little reading about presidential second terms, which can be marked by missteps and scandal.

“I don't presume that because I won an election, that everybody suddenly agrees with me on everything,” he said. “I'm more than familiar with all the literature about presidential overreach in second terms. We are very cautious about that.”