Almost two months after Barack Obama’s election, Republicans are struggling to figure out how — or even whether — to challenge or criticize him as he prepares to assume the presidency.
The president-elect is proving to be an elusive and frustrating target. He has defied efforts to be framed ideologically. His cabinet picks have won wide praise. An effort by the Republican National Committee to link Mr. Obama to the unfolding scandal involving Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich of Illinois and his alleged attempt to barter for Mr. Obama’s Senate seat was dismissed by no less a figure than Senator John McCain, the Republican Mr. Obama beat for the presidency.
The toughest criticism of Mr. Obama during this period — in fact, the real only criticism of him during this period — has come not from the right but from the left, primarily over his selection of the Rev. Rick Warren, an evangelical pastor who is a leading opponent of same-sex marriage, to deliver the invocation at the inauguration.
There are plenty of battles ahead that may provide Republicans with an opportunity to find their footing. They will no doubt find arguments to use against Mr. Obama when, for example, he starts to lay out the details of his economic stimulus plans. While Mr. Obama is the beneficiary of the kind of post-election honeymoon Washington has not seen in at least 16 years, honeymoons tend to end.
Still, this display of Republican uncertainty is testimony to the political skills of the incoming president, and a reminder of just how difficult a situation the Republican Party is in. More than that, though, members of both parties say, it is evidence of the unusual place the country is in: buoyed by the prospect of the inauguration of a president who appears to enjoy great favor with the public, while at the same time deeply worried about the country’s future. It is going to be complicated making a case against Mr. Obama, many Republicans said, in an environment where people want him to succeed and may not have much of an appetite for partisan politics.
“I think the country is so tired right now of a style of Republican attack politics that has become a caricature of itself, they instinctively go, ‘I’m tired of that,’ ” said Newt Gingrich, a Republican and former speaker of the House. “It’s ineffective against Barack Obama right now. The country is faced with serious problems and is about to have a brand new president. You’d have to be irrational not to want the new president to succeed.”
Saul Anuzis, chairman of the Michigan Republican Party and a leading candidate to become the next leader of the Republican National Committee, offered a similar message on his blog. “Where necessary,” Mr. Anuzis wrote, “we should stand for what is right and forcefully be the loyal opposition. But partisan politics in times like these for the sake of politics is not healthy. “
Republican leaders in Congress have made clear that they are looking, at least initially, to work with Mr. Obama, reflecting what they said was the seriousness of the times.
“You’ve seen very little criticism coming out of the gates of the president-elect or his cabinet selections,” Michael Steel, a spokesman for Representative John A. Boehner of Ohio, the House Republican leader, said on Tuesday. “We want to work with him on behalf of the American people and hope that he governs in the open and bipartisan way in which he promised.”
The situation Republican leaders find themselves in is reminiscent of the frustration displayed by Mr. McCain and Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, Democrat of New York, in the presidential campaign. As a candidate and as president-elect, Mr. Obama has proved deft at skirting ideological definitions; that has become even clearer as he has put together his cabinet and left open his options on issues like repealing the tax cuts for the wealthy. The presidential campaign clearly taught him how to avoid political mistakes and to clean them up quickly when made: when, at his first news conference as president-elect, he made an unkind remark about Nancy Reagan — a joke about her holding séances in the White House — Mr. Obama called her and apologized before the evening news.
Beyond that, the historic nature of his presidency — of his being the first African-American president, and all the interest that has generated here and abroad — has complicated things even more for an opposition party looking to go on the attack.
The Republican National Committee appears to be having particular trouble in finding the right tone. Since Election Day, it has continued with the daily patter of attacks on Mr. Obama that it offered throughout the general election campaign, a strategy pushed by the national chairman, Mike Duncan, but one that clearly does not have universal support.
The committee’s effort to link Mr. Obama to the corruption investigation in Illinois, through statements and a television advertisement it produced, drew criticism from Mr. McCain as well as Mr. Gingrich.
“It was amazingly wrong,” Mr. Gingrich said.
For his part, Mr. Duncan, who is seeking re-election as chairman when the party gathers here in January, said there was a role for his party to act as “the loyal opposition: to ask questions, agree where you can, but ask questions all the time.”
Mr. Duncan acknowledged that this was not easy, though he suggested it would be easier after Mr. Obama took office and was faced with dealing with problems and fulfilling campaign promises.
“It’s too early,” he said. “We’re still in this honeymoon phase, and we will hold him accountable. We will work with him and try to make sure he keeps his promises.”
The other complications for Republicans is that it is difficult to go on the attack without having a positive program to offer as an alternative. Mr. Gingrich said he would lay out positions in coming weeks that the party could embrace to offer a contrast with Democrats, like suggesting that government needs the same kind of management overhaul that Congress is talking about imposing on the auto industry.
Still, in the wake of the party’s losses in November, Republicans are having trouble reaching any kind of consensus about anything beyond the broadest of generalities. And that does not appear likely to change any time soon, as the party tries to figure out exactly how it should handle this new president.