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Clarence Page: Audacity vs. ideology

Now that he doesn't have George W. Bush to kick around anymore, President Barack Obama is taking on the talk show hosts.

That's Rush Limbaugh's impression and he's sticking to it.

Obama reportedly told Republican leaders like House Minority Leader John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, "You can't just listen to Rush Limbaugh and get things done."

The quote, originally reported by the New York Post, came as Obama and opposition leaders haggled behind closed doors over the stimulus package that Democrats have proposed to kick-start our stalled and sputtering economy.

Limbaugh has barely been able to conceal his joy.

After all, he just signed a stimulus package of his own this past year: an eye-popping $400 million contract over the next eight years for his syndicated radio talk show. What better endorsement of his own relevancy could he get than to have a new president drop his name as someone whose advice should be avoided?

That's show biz. Any publicity is good publicity.

Limbaugh had dropped his own lump of coal into Obama's inauguration week by declaring that he wants Obama to "fail" if he pushes "socialistic" prescriptions for the economy.

When even some fellow conservatives accused him of dancing with un-patriotism, he argued back that he supports the president but only wants his "socialist" policies to fail.

Since Limbaugh denounces almost all of Obama's package as "socialist," his distinction does not make much of a difference.

Either way, Rush sounds like he cares more about preserving the conservative ideological purity than he cares about saving the economy -- or the country.

Obama, by contrast, defies ideological boxes or attempts by his adversaries to put him into one, right or left.

In his writings, his interviews and his actions, it is ideas that matter to Obama, not ideology.

He comes off as a pragmatic liberal -- or, as he prefers, "progressive" -- who has comfortably courted conservatives since his first campaign, his election to the presidency of the Harvard Law Review.

Since his more recent presidential victory, he has shown less opposition to conservatism than to ideology itself, especially the knee-jerk one-size-fits-all ideologies of the right or the left that try to apply outmoded solutions to every new problem.

He is not shy about embracing conservative ideas that work, even when they offend his liberal allies.

Take for example the economic stimulus package. Contrary to Limbaugh's boilerplate "socialism" charge, about a third of the price tag on the bill that Obama supports is allotted to tax cuts that Republicans suggested to Obama's economic team.

Obama initially asked for even more tax cuts, the brass ring of Republican lawmakers.

In his effort to be what Limbaugh derisively calls "the Great Unifier," Obama initially sought to allot 40 percent of the bill to tax cuts. But congressional Democrats weren't ready to be that unified.

Although Obama did win over some Republicans, he angered so many Democrats that he was forced to settle for the rollback to one-third -- which angered more Republicans.

Welcome to Washington, Mr. President.

Still, tough as it might be to bring both sides together, most of the public appears to appreciate Obama for trying, Limbaugh notwithstanding.

In a new Gallup Poll, the first to be taken after his inauguration, Obama's approval ratings are 43 percent -- and that's among Republicans. Among Democrats, he's at 88 percent and among independents, 62 percent.

Obama has been reaching out, and quite a few folks on the other side are reaching back.

That puts Republican lawmakers in a tricky situation. After losing the White House and shrinking their congressional minority in November, Republican leaders don't want to appear to be obstructionist, but they don't want to appear to be toothless, either.

With Limbaugh trying to stiffen their spines, Obama understandably wants to tug them his way. That might have been the unofficial message of Obama's off-the-record, pre-inaugural dinner with conservative columnists like David Brooks, Bill Kristol and Charles Krauthammer at George Will's house.

He also met the next day with liberal-leaning columnists in his office.

From what I hear, the face time sessions were like ballroom dances for grizzly bears: remarkable not because they were done well, but that they were done at all.

I was not invited to either one, but neither was Rush and maybe that was the point.

As Michael Wolff observes in the media industry Web site Newser, Obama's dinner with conservative columnists "was as much about excluding Rush as coddling the columnists."

Indeed, Obama's message is pretty clear: He welcomes conservatives and anyone else who is ready to offer some answers, not just arguments.

Reach Clarence Page at cpage@tribune.com.