By Dan Balz
The Washington Post
WASHINGTON — Congress returns to work next week facing a crowded legislative agenda and one big question for President Barack Obama and Republican lawmakers: Can Washington govern?
At no time since the earliest days of Obama's presidency have conditions seemed as potentially favorable for cooperation as they do this spring, largely because both sides have reasons to want to show results.
That's the optimistic view. But running counter is another reality. The agenda is extraordinarily challenging, and trust remains at a minimum. The issues on the calendar — gun control, immigration and the budget — strain the coalitions of each party. At the same time, existing philosophical differences and the rigid contours of political polarization stand in the way of agreements.
Obama has spent the winter working a bifurcated strategy. One part is his so-called charm offensive, his outreach to Senate Republicans designed to create some sense of good will. Next week he will have another dinner with GOP senators, hoping to create a climate more favorable to productive negotiations.
The other part of the strategy is regular trips outside of Washington designed to rally public opinion and to ratchet up pressure on Republicans to compromise. Obama just finished such a trip, which included a rally for his gun-control proposal, which faces mounting opposition, as well as a visit to California to raise money for the 2014 elections.
Republicans wonder which Obama is the real one: the man on the charm offensive or the partisan pol fattening his party's coffers with an eye on retaking the House. The answer may be both: a president who long has believed he could bring opposing sides together and a politician who emerged from his reelection campaign with renewed confidence in his own agenda and with a harder edge.