WASHINGTON, Feb. 26, 2009 -- With members of both parties gathered at the White House for Monday's summit on fiscal responsibility, President Obama was asked whether he'll continue his outreach to Republicans.
He didn't have to scan the crowd to settle on a member of Congress he could single out to make his point.
"I'm going to keep on talking to Eric Cantor," the president said.
"Some day, sooner or later, he is going to say, 'Boy, Obama had a good idea,'" he added, prompting some laughter. "It's going to happen. You watch, you watch."
The political world is indeed watching. And whether and how it happens could be one of the most critical factors in determining whether Obama's attempt to remake Washington politics is a success.
Rep. Cantor, R-Va., has emerged as a key player in Washington and arguably the most influential young voice in a Republican Party in transition.
Cantor Emerges as Key Player
The second-ranking House Republican -- and the only Jewish Republican in the House of Representatives -- Cantor appears to be a well-positioned foil for the new president.
So far, that's left Cantor uniting his party in opposition to Obama -- but it may not always be that way.
Cantor, 45, said he accepts Obama's vows of bipartisanship "all in good spirit" and that he remains hopeful that Republicans will find ways to team up with a reform-minded president.
"He was elected with an awful lot of hope on the part of voters that he was actually going to do things in a different way," Cantor said in an interview.
Deft Political Positioning
In a deft piece of political positioning, Cantor and his allies are arguing that if Obama intends to keep his word on bringing a new tone to governing, he's going to have to make that clear to his fellow Democrats on Capitol Hill.
That leaves Republicans standing up primarily against widely unpopular congressional leaders, as opposed to the still-popular president.
"Perhaps the White House may not say this, but they missed an opportunity to intervene early with Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi to get her to do things differently [in the stimulus bill]," Cantor said. "This bill did not meet his standard."
He said it falls to the president to change the way business is conducted in Congress: "He is obviously a mighty persuasive figure. He has a lot of political capital, and I believe his heart is in the right place."
Cantor: Rising Star of the GOP
Cantor is being widely touted as a rising star in a party in search of a new identity. He's being hailed as the Newt Gingrich of his generation and a possible presidential contender in 2012 or beyond.
But unlike Gingrich -- whom Cantor says he consults regularly to gather advice on how to structure the opposition in Congress -- he's developed an easy rapport with the president he's opposing.
While he and Obama have vast ideological differences, the open lines of communication offer Obama at least the possibility of the kinds of bipartisan successes he craves.
"I think that Republicans are united in the fact that we want to work with this president to try and solve the economic challenges that families are facing across this country," Cantor said Wednesday on ABC's "Good Morning America."
Since taking over as Republican whip for a diminished and demoralized caucus in the new Congress, Cantor has been a ubiquitous presence for the GOP -- on television, in White House meetings, and rallying the troops behind closed doors.
It was Cantor who surprised Obama aides at a White House meeting by taking Obama up on his invitation to offer alternative ideas on the stimulus package.
It was Cantor who crafted a Republican version of the stimulus bill, giving the GOP something to rally around. And it was Cantor again who managed his colleagues so effectively that not a single House Republican wound up voting for Obama's stimulus package.
GOP Fights for Party Unity
Republicans credit Cantor with keeping the party united despite the president's sky-high approval ratings and Obama's well-publicized efforts to woo GOP members.
That may be a risky political strategy -- it helps Democrats brand Republicans as the party of "no" -- but many in the GOP see it as part of the journey back to core principles.
"He is a very welcome breath of fresh air, who is not afraid or ashamed to stick to and forcefully agitate conservative principles and policy positions," said Keith Appell, a Republican political strategist. "He is a welcome change. He doesn't buy into the phony bipartisanship that Obama preaches but doesn't practice."
Despite the Republican opposition emanating from Capitol Hill, Cantor and Obama are developing a working relationship based on mutual respect, according to both Democrats and Republicans.
"The president has already, in a way, picked him out as a person he wants to have a better relationship with," said Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., the chief deputy whip in the Republican caucus.
"They're close to the same age. They both have the same work ethic," McCarthy said. "Most importantly, he doesn't just tell the president 'no.' When he meets with the president he comes up with ideas. They might not agree all the time, but he's willing to be at the table to find a solution."
The boyish Cantor is in his fifth term representing Richmond and its environs, a congressional district that, as he likes to point out, was once represented by James Madison.
Prolific Fundraiser and Policy Wonk
Cantor has long been known as one of the party's most prolific fundraisers, a policy wonk who is also one of the House's sharpest partisan voices. Last year, he vaulted to a measure of national prominence when he was publicly identified as a possible running mate for Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
He has also tangled frequently with Pelosi. In 2007, for example, he fanned a mini-controversy over Pelosi's use of a larger military jet than her predecessor utilized to take the California Democrat between Washington and her San Francisco congressional district. (The larger jet was actually put into service for security purposes, to allow non-stop flights ferrying the speaker coast-to-coast.)
But in the House, Cantor always maintained a good working relationship with Rahm Emanuel, a former top Pelosi deputy who is now Obama's chief of staff.
That has helped open the lines of communications to Obama, with whom Cantor said he had no meaningful relationship when they served together in Congress.
So far, the rapport hasn't translated into anything substantive. Cantor and his fellow Republicans opposed the stimulus bill and measures to expand children's health care and equal workforce treatment.
Cantor is opposing the new massive spending bill being debated this week in Congress, and he's poised to lead a fierce opposition to elements of Obama's health care, labor and environmental plans.
Limits on the Minority Party?
As Cantor has been reminded regularly, there are severe limits to what the minority can accomplish in the House. As Obama curtly reminded Cantor at a White House meeting last month -- when the congressman voiced support for a tax cut the president opposed -- "I won."
Unlike the Senate, where filibusters allow Republicans to influence legislation, the overwhelming Democratic majority in the House lets Democrats shape legislation with little or no GOP input.
And Republican congressional leadership is coming under harsh scrutiny in the era of Obama.
"I don't even know the congressional leadership," Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., R-Utah, told a Washington Times editorial board meeting this week. "I have not met them. I don't listen or read whatever it is they say because it is inconsequential -- completely."
The Role of Republicans in Current Congress
But Cantor sees a major role for Republicans in Congress -- as a check on Obama's power, and also as a partner in reform on the issues as disparate as controlling health care spending and new financial regulations.
He said he is in regular contact with Gingrich, the last Republican leader to take his party from the minority to the majority. The parallels are inexact, but he said Gingrich was able to take advantage of a period of mistrust for major institutions.
"The notion that we were going to allow people to reclaim the government is valuable to what we have going on now," Cantor said. "The way we do that is to set an example. It starts with us."
He added, "Reform's not easy, as Newt can demonstrate. This is going against the grain at many turns."