WASHINGTON — It’s not so easy being the loyal opposition these days.
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 attempts 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 the accusations that he tried to sell Mr. Obama’s Senate seat was dismissed by no less a figure than Senator John McCain, the Republican whom Mr. Obama beat for the presidency.
The toughest criticism of Mr. Obama during this period — in fact, the real only criticism of Mr. Obama during this period — has come not from the right but from the left, primarily over his selection of Rick Warren, a leading opponent of gay marriage, to deliver the invocation on Inauguration Day.
There are plenty of battles ahead that may provide Republicans an opportunity to find their footing. They will no doubt find arguments to use against Mr. Obama when he starts to lay out the details of his economic stimulus plans, or signals how aggressively he wants to fulfill a pledge to labor to back a bill that would take away employers’ right to demand a secret ballot-election to determine if workers wanted to unionize. And Mr. Obama is the beneficiary of the kind of post-election honeymoon Washington hasn’t seen in 16 years. (Bill Clinton, considering his own rocky introduction to Washington in 1992, might argue it has in fact been even longer than that).
Still, this image of Republican uncertainty is a 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, Republicans and Democrats say, it is evidence of the unusual place the country is in now: buoyed by prospect of an inauguration 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 simply want him to succeed and may not have much of an appetite for partisan politics.
“I think at a time like this, at a time of crisis, a lot of people would like to see people try to work together, especially with Obama not even being sworn in yet,” said Saul Anuzis, the Michigan Republican chairman and a leading candidate in the fight to be the next Republican National Committee leader. “What you don’t want to be is the party that’s always attacking or being negative with no alternatives.”
And in his blog, Mr. Anuzis wrote: "Where necessary, 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. "
The situation Republican leaders find themselves in is reminiscent of the frustration displayed by Senator McCain and Hillary Rodham Clinton in the presidential contest. First as a candidate and now as president-elect, Mr. Obama has proved deft at skirting ideological definitions; that has become even more clear as he has put together his cabinet and left open his options on issues like repealing tax cuts for the wealthy. The campaign clearly taught him how to avoid political mistakes and how to clean them up quickly; when at his first news conference he made an unkind remark about Nancy Reagan — a joke about her holding séances in the White House — he called her and apologized before the evening news.
Beyond that, the historic nature of his presidency — of being the first African-American president, and all the interest that has generated here and abroad — has complicated things even more for the opposition party.
The Republican National Committee, which is in the midst of an internal battle over who will be its next chairman, 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 right through the general election campaign, a strategy pushed by the chairman, Mike Duncan, but one that clearly does not have universal support.
Its attempt to link Mr. Obama to the ongoing corruption scandal in Illinois drew criticism not only from Mr. McCain but also Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker.
“I was saddened to learn that at a time of national trial, when a president-elect is preparing to take office in the midst of the worst financial crisis in over seventy years, that the Republican National Committee is engaged in the sort of negative, attack politics that the voters rejected in the 2006 and 2008 election cycles,” Mr. Gingrich wrote in a letter to Mr. Duncan.
For his part, Mr. Duncan, who is seeking re-election as chairman when Republicans gather here in January — a fight that is providing a backdrop to the party’s ongoing debate — said he thought 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 an easy task, particularly now, however, though he suggested it will get easier after Mr. Obama takes office and has to deal with the problems and fulfill his campaign promises.
“We’re in a honeymoon stage right now and everybody wants to se him succeed,” he said, though he quickly added that he was not frustrated.
“It’s too early,” Mr. Duncan 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.”
Katon Dawson, the South Carolina Republican chairman who is another candidate to lead the party, said that the task for Republicans was clear. “If I were the national chairman, I would hold the administration accountable for doing what it said it was going to do,” Mr. Dawson said.
How and when to do that, he said, was another matter. “It matters in the tenor and the tone and the substance,” Mr. Dawson said. “Right now there isn’t a public policy yet. So it’s probably premature.”