Why Obama’s Outreach to Republicans Is All About Obama

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
March 12 2013 6:45 PM

Is Obama Setting a Trap for Republicans?

Nah, he’s just trying to ensure his place in the history books. Like most days.

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What are we to make of this? First, when a former White House adviser who once decried anonymous quotes cites an anonymous quote as holding a singular truth, you should be suspicious. Second, when someone tries to tell you one anonymous quote is the truth while ignoring what appears just one skinny line space away, that person is treating you like an idiot. In the next sentence, Fournier quotes another White House source who claims the president is sincerely reaching out to Republicans. The most plausible interpretation of the blind quote based on my conversations with administration aides is that there are those in the administration who think trying to negotiate with Republicans is a joke because the GOP will never cooperate in the end, not because the president is engaged in a deliberate sham. The more on the record version of this is “we’re not naïve about the chances for a grand bargain.” 

Still, White House press secretary Jay Carney was trying to clobber the anonymous notion in his Tuesday press conference: "I have no idea who said that, but I can tell you that opinion has never been voiced in my presence, in the president's presence, in the West Wing. It does not represent the president's view, it does not represent the White House's view, and it does not represent the administration's view."

Fortunately, as a thinking member of the electorate, you don't have to adjudicate whether the anonymous source represents metaphysical truth. Whether the president thinks his efforts to reach out to Republicans are a joke or not is not that relevant. His sincerity about a specific tactic used to reach the grand bargain doesn't speak to whether he's sincere about the grand bargain itself. The president can think that the outreach strategy is a joke but that some other strategy might work. We don't know. Furthermore, being skeptical that a strategy will work doesn't undermine the enterprise. Many Republican lawmakers, for example, are highly skeptical that Obama is serious. They don't trust him. They think working with him is a joke. But it doesn't follow that they are less committed to a grand budget bargain. 

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Politicians engage in activity all the time that either they or their staff thinks isn’t likely to amount to much. That is a key requirement of politics—to engage in activity you find meaningless, suspicious, and silly—because it helps you to reach a larger goal. (I am certain that even Karl Rove did this at least once when he worked in the White House.)

One high-profile example of this truth about the disconnect between your public acts and private motivation was Mitch McConnell's statement in 2010 that his single most important job was to make Obama a one-term president. For Democrats, what McConnell said was a revealing truth, the way this anonymous White House aide is speaking the truth for Republicans. Republicans defended McConnell, saying his remark wasn’t a sign the Republican Senate leader had totally thrown over his duty to the people for political gain. Of course Mitch McConnell wanted Barack Obama to be a one-term president. It's not the kind of thing you are supposed to say out loud if you are adhering to the traditions of the Senate, maybe, but that's a matter of etiquette. When McConnell uttered those words it didn't tell us anything new about McConnell's underlying posture. He was going to try to thwart the president until either his view of the public interest or his personal ambition told him to do otherwise. That's the natural state of things. We’d like it to be different, but it isn’t. Despite McConnell's view, he still participated in a number of agreements with the president on the debt ceiling, funding the government, and extending the payroll tax cut. 

Republican lawmakers who will be up for re-election in 2014 will have to decide soon whether President Obama is being honest about wanting to work on a big deal or laying a trap. One fact that they might include in their thinking is that the tactic of outreach-as-trap is not very effective. The fact that they are still in office reflects this truth. Obama tried throughout 2009 and 2010 to paint Republicans as unreasonable. In 2010, Republicans retook the House. In 2012, Republicans held on to the House despite the president running the exact playbook they accuse him of running now with a general election electorate filled with more sympathetic swing voters. In 2014, the president will face the “six-year itch,” which Charlie Cook reminds us today is never good for presidents. The president’s party has lost five of the last six such elections, forfeiting an average of 29 House seats and six Senate seats. It's possible the president is recycling this strategy in a bad historical environment, but it's more likely that he isn't going to risk his legacy on a failed gambit without trying something else first.  

If the long-shot attempts at a grand bargain break down, Obama will no doubt attack Republicans in 2014 with fervor, but it will be part of a political and legacy salvage operation. If his ambition is still intact, it's possible that he might first want to pursue a strategy that adds to his greatness, rather than a long-shot strategy that at best gets him a few rays of reflected glory.