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 reporter for Bloomberg Politics

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.”

This wasn’t entirely fair. In the debt limit negotiations of 2011, and in the excruciating “fiscal cliff” sequel last month, the White House floated a number of entitlement cuts that would have wrought real political pain on Democrats. The sun probably hasn’t set on ideas like chained CPI and adjustments to the Medicare or Social Security eligibility ages. At the time, Obama—gun at his temple—had embraced the idea that a debt limit crisis was a way to coax reform out of Washington. “All of us agree that we should use this opportunity to do something meaningful on debt and deficits,” he said in a July 2011 press conference. “If not now, when?” The new answer is sometime later, maybe.

Can the president get away with more delay? That depends on whether he can separate the popularity of the GOP’s debt ceiling stance from the widespread public loathing of its House majority. (Obama referred repeatedly to “this Congress,” lumping together Boehner’s House with the minority filibuster-ers of the Senate.) After the “cliff” deal was reached, Boehner revealed a Republican poll on the concept of pairing the debt ceiling vote with “spending cuts and reforms.” Seventy-two percent of respondents said that they wanted the debt vote tied to something.

Obama’s task: Tell the public that it’s been misinformed, and that it can’t trust the GOP. The repetitive press conference questions about the debt ceiling teed up Obama to explain that “the debt ceiling is not a question of authorizing more spending,” and “raising the debt ceiling does not authorize more spending,” and so on. House Republicans were spending money and blaming him for it. The nerve! “Some of the same folks who say, we got to cut spending or complain that, you know, government jobs don’t do anything, when it comes to that defense contractor in their district, they think, wow, this is—this is a pretty important part of the economy in my district and we shouldn’t stop spending on that; let’s just make sure we’re not spending on those other folks.” His term began with Republicans warning that stimulus spending would never grow the economy; he was ending it by calling them hypocrites.

Years ago, an Obama-watcher might have asked about the downside of this harsh tone. At an early 2009 meeting on the stimulus, Republicans complained that Obama was going to give a tax credit to people who didn’t pay net taxes. “I won,” said the new president. The comment zipped out of the room and into Republican lore.

But since then, Democrats have become increasingly convinced that nothing mollifies Republicans. A trove of political science research (highlighted by Ezra Klein last year) suggests that the party out of power is inclined to oppose anything that the president prioritizes. Democrats had no particular stance on Mars exploration funding, until George W. Bush called for it. That turned them into hard “no” votes.

Obama has faced hotter opposition than that, and on higher-stakes issues. As he told Univision in a September 2012 interview, he learned that “you can’t change Washington from the inside,” and that he’d start “a much more constant conversation with the American people” to push past congressional opposition. Republicans, who by that point were calling every Obama quote a gaffe, claimed that the president had undermined the meaning of his presidency. But they probably understand him now.

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