How the New Obama Talks Down to Congress

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Jan. 14 2013 6:10 PM

I’m the Derider

President Obama uses his final first-term press conference to browbeat the new Congress.

President Obama holds a news conference in the White House on Monday in Washington, DC.
President Obama holds a news conference in the White House on Monday in Washington, DC.

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

At the tail end of Monday’s press conference, the last one of Barack Obama’s first term, a reporter figured out how to trip up the president. Jackie Calmes of the New York Times followed up a string of questions about the debt limit by asking whether the president needed to do more socializing. This theme has weighed heavily on the minds of Washington reporters who study Robert Caro’s LBJ bios and notice when back-slap-happy Joe Biden swoops in and conjures a fiscal deal.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

The president struggled to answer. He would pause whenever he wanted to mention, without naming, one of his enemies. “I think there are a lot of Republicans at this point [most of the Class of 2010] that feel that given how much energy has been devoted in some of the media that’s preferred by Republican constituencies to demonize me [Fox News, talk radio], that it doesn’t look real good, socializing with me.”

He was ready with evidence. “Charlie Crist, down in Florida, I think, testifies to that,” said the president. “And a lot of folks think, ‘Well, if we look like we’re being too cooperative or too chummy, that might cause problems. That might be an excuse to get a challenge from someone in a primary.’ ”

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Obama couldn’t have earned less sympathy from Republicans if he’d snuffed out cigarettes in their lattes. To them, Crist is a callow greasy-pole climber who enabled Barack Obama’s $873 billion stimulus spending. None of them regret giving Florida’s U.S. Senate seat to Marco Rubio instead of Crist. This idea that Republicans opposed Crist because he hugged Obama was offensive, trite, and wrong. “They were upset with him because he hugged the President’s failed [stimulus],” says Club for Growth spokesman Barney Keller.

He knows. Obama wrapped up his first term by portraying Republicans as unreliable and craven hostage-takers. He referred to their demands, for spending cuts in proportion to any debt limit increase, as “ransom.” To talk in those terms, he said, would be a “negotiation with a gun at the head of the American people.” If Congress wanted to “give me the authority so that they don’t have to take these tough votes,” it would spare itself some war wounds.

Over the weekend, the Treasury Department finally ruled out the possibility of averting the debt limit fight by minting a platinum coin and counting it as payment on the debt. Some progressives, who’ve been warning that the president lacked leverage, wondered why he kept giving away possible tools. (Paul Krugman said there was a choice between “two alternatives”—the coin or default.)

We have our answer. Obama doesn’t think the Republicans have any leverage at all. Their base wants them to cut spending and default, but their donors will kick the bridle off once things get dicey. “If John Boehner and Mitch McConnell think that they can come up with a plan that somehow meets [the] criteria that they’ve set,” said Obama, “they’re free to go ahead and try. But the proposals that they’ve put forward in order to accomplish that only by cutting spending means cuts to things like Medicare and education that the American people profoundly reject.”

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