In politics and human relations, it's best to be skeptical of uncharacteristic generosity. When my son offers to do the dishes, I know I'll find something broken somewhere in the house soon enough. When an email from a distant acquaintance starts on a chatty note, I prepare for the Big Ask. In only the most well-adjusted marriages would a spouse’s surprise gift of flowers not stir the least bit of suspicion in their mate.
So it is only fitting that Republicans are suspicious of President Obama’s warming trend. One minute he's dismissing us and the next he's picking up the tab for dinner? In short, goes the theory, Obama’s charm offensive is a trap. The president is putting on a good face for the public in order to set up his opponents for the 2014 elections. When no budget deal is reached, the president will be able to say that he tried but the Republicans rebuffed him and should be thrown out of office.
This suspicion would be natural in a normal relationship, let alone one as poisoned as the relationship between the president and the GOP. But to stay intact this theory must survive at least two challenges. It misunderstands President Obama's ambition (he cares more about his legacy than he does Congressional Democrats) and it suggests Obama learned nothing from his first several years in office when he attempted the strategy Republicans are accusing him of, and failed.
We know this much about Barack Obama: He is ambitious. When advisers wanted to go for a more modest health care bill in his first term, he pushed for Obamacare, citing his desire to do big things. We also know presidents think about their legacies in the second term. Republicans have long argued that the president's ego is as large as the national debt. If you map out his DNA, it reads: me, me, me. So, what is likely to win the president greater glory in the history books: a grand bargain that leads to a healthy economy or the return of a Democratic House majority?
The president and his advisers believe that a grand budget deal would help an economy that is poised to take off. Recent economic data, including February's strong jobs numbers, confirm their view that economic conditions are on the upswing. If the president can contribute to fixing the budget mess, consumers and companies will spend more and the economy will blossom. The president would be able to claim he revived the economy after the worst downturn since the Great Depression. A grand bargain would also allow him to say that even though everyone thought Washington was broken, he was able to forge a deal that tackled a problem people tell pollsters they care the most about.
Now, let's consider the glory associated with the outreach-as-trap theory. If the endgame were to win the 17 Democratic seats necessary for Democrats to take control the House—a few seats won’t do—that would be an accomplishment, but not really one to light up the history books. More important, it wouldn't reflect direct glory on Obama.
Also, this electoral strategy doesn't do anything to address the economy. The president and his advisers think these budget clashes keep a lid on growth; if the president were to go this route, Obama would be resigning himself to a legacy in which the Obama economy is remembered as constantly struggling. Also, I've had a lot of conversations over the years with Democratic operatives who have regularly complained that Obama cares more about himself than fellow Democrats. If he's now adopting a Congress-first strategy, it would represent a significant change in character, especially for a second-term president.
But wait, what about the theory of two months ago that Obama wanted to destroy the Republican Party? The truth at the center of that theory is still the same: Obama is ambitious. What has changed is the tactic. During the post-election budget fights, the president had more leverage than he does now. He'd just thrashed Mitt Romney and polls showed that voters preferred his ideas to Republican ones. He decided to work that advantage by pressuring Republicans right out of the gate. He pressured them in the fiscal cliff negotiations and debt ceiling fights, and he succeeded. He tried again in the battle over sequestration and it didn't work. The across-the-board cuts took place and the president’s approval numbers and advantage over Republicans dropped with it.
The tactic failed, but the ambition remains. So he's changing tactics on the budget from pressure to outreach.
That's just what the president wants you to think, say the skeptics. They know the truth, and they have a White House leak to prove it. In a recent National Journal article, an anonymous White House adviser told Ron Fournier that the president's slap and tickle with Republicans is a sham. “This is a joke. We’re wasting the president’s time and ours. I hope you all (in the media) are happy because we’re doing it for you.” The minute this quote hit the Internet, I got two emails from House Speaker John Boehner's office and the Republican National Committee put out a press release. On Twitter, a variety of Republicans cited it as proof for a variety of claims. "Is the president serious about a grand bargain?" asked Karl Rove. "WH adviser gives us our answer."