Less than seven weeks into his second term, President Barack Obama seems mired in the same uncertainty over how to deal with recalcitrant and at times obstructionist Republicans that dominated his volatile first term.
While the president and his team insist he is the reasonable one in the endless debate over taxes and spending, the failure last week to deliver a deal with Congress to avert forced spending cuts has harmed Obama's poll numbers and raised questions about his strategy.
Critics cite a hyper-partisan blame campaign by Obama that stretched and at times obliterated the truth about the forced spending cuts, as well as the eventual political showdown with congressional Republicans last Friday that yielded nothing but public confusion and disenchantment.
Now the president appears to be calibrating his campaign-style efforts to generate public outrage against Republicans by reaching out to GOP legislators, starting with dinner Wednesday night with 12 GOP senators, including some harsh critics.
Obama also invited House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, and the panel's top Democrat, Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, to lunch Thursday, a White House official said.
Next week, the president will go across town to the U.S. Capitol for separate meetings he requested with Republicans in the House and Senate.
The Wednesday dinner was described by participants as a frank and beneficial discussion on deficit reduction, including how to bring about bipartisan support for so far intractable issues such as reforms to the tax system and popular entitlement programs.
No negotiations took place, they stressed, describing it as an opening exchange of what appeared to be a trust-building exercise after the past four years of deeply partisan divide.
"We were working together and talking together about the real essence of our problem and how we can get this thing turned from this never-ending, short-term-fix, fiscal cliff stuff into a long-term solution to our fiscal problem," Sen. Dan Coats, R-Indiana, told CNN on Thursday. "I was pleased that it was that substantive."
Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pennsylvania, said he believed common ground could be reached in some areas but added that "it's not going to happen over one dinner."
While the main focus of current Washington debate involves fiscal issues, Obama also seeks to work out compromises on other priorities, including immigration reform and tighter gun laws.
A White House official told CNN on Wednesday that the president's outreach was a "change in approach" following the deadline-driven atmosphere of the previous week, when the forced spending cuts took effect on March 1.
It follows a series of speeches by Obama in February intended to raise pressure on congressional Republicans to accept his insistence on more tax revenue as part of any plan to replace the forced spending cuts or reach a broader deficit reduction agreement.
No agreement ensued, and now Obama refers to finding a "caucus of common sense" that would include Republicans willing to go against their leadership's unyielding opposition to any kind of further tax increases after they agreed in January to return rates on top income earners to higher levels of the 1990s.
Republicans, including House Speaker John Boehner, argue that Obama only wants to make them look bad to give Democrats a chance to win back control of the House in the 2014 elections.
They question whether the president truly wants an agreement on fiscal issues, or if he merely seeks to depict Republicans as obstructionist while continuing to push his campaign themes of equal opportunity and shared burden from last year's election.
"We're expecting over the next 22 months to be the focus of this administration as they attempt to annihilate the Republican Party," Boehner said in a January speech. "And let me just tell you, I do believe that is their goal -- to just shove us into the dustbin of history."
To Brown University political scientist Wendy Schiller, Obama needs to work harder for results instead of remaining in election campaign mode.
"Spending energy for the next year-and-a-half doing nothing and blaming Republicans on the long shot you get the House back is woefully misguided and bad for the country," Schiller told CNN. "Americans did not re-elect President Obama to play the partisan blame game. They re-elected him to run the country, and that is what he should be doing."
She cited the president's series of recent speeches that warned of myriad troubles including job losses, released criminals, reduced security and other threats if Congress failed to replace or soften the forced spending cuts, known in Washington jargon as sequestration.
Several claims turned out to be excessive, as noted by GOP critics and media fact-checkers, putting Obama and the administration on the defensive.
"His big gamble was to overplay the impact of the sequester on the daily lives of most Americans," Schiller said, adding that it failed to effectively sway public opinion because "when people can't see the damage, they don't worry about the damage."
At the same time, Republicans are putting more pressure on Obama by better tailoring their opposition to his policies instead of repeating the sweeping rejection and calls for repeal that characterized last year's election campaign.
"Republicans are being more strategic in how they're approaching the budget," said Darrell West, the vice president and director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution. "As opposed to saying 'no' to everything, they are picking and choosing their fights."
A CNN compilation of recent national polls shows a drop in Obama's approval rating to below 50% in recent weeks as the debate over the forced spending cuts reached its zenith.