Obama’s new argument: Republicans are picking on me because they don’t like me


President Obama gives a speech about the economy at Paramount Theatre in Austin, Texas, on Thursday, July 10, 2014. (AP Photo/Austin American-Statesman, Jay Janner)

President Obama has suggested for a long time that Republicans don't much like him. And he's right -- at least, politically speaking.

In recent days, though, he has taken that message a step further. He has suggested on multiple occasions that Republicans aren't just opposing him out of partisanship, but out of personal animus or spite.

"What I do worry about is that, right now, we got a Republican Party that seems to only care about saying no to me," Obama said in an interview with ABC two weeks ago. And here's Obama at a speech Wednesday in Denver: "Republicans in Congress right now have shown over and over they'll do anything to rig the system for those at the top or to try to score political points on me..."

Then, later in the day at a press conference on immigration: "If I sponsor a bill declaring apple pie American, it might fall victim partisan politics."

In a speech in Dallas on Thursday, he added, "It's not clear how it is that Republicans didn't seem to mind when President Bush took more executive actions than I did. Maybe it's just me they don't like, I don't know."

And later that day at a fundraiser in Austin: "You've got one party whose main goal seems just to say no: Say no to immigration reform. Say no to raising the minimum wage. ... Say no to equal pay for equal work. Don't just say no to doing something about climate change; just deny climate change. And definitely say no to me."

These are hardly the first times that Obama has cast the GOP opposition to him in some personal terms. But it is also apparent that, as House Republicans launch a lawsuit against the president, Obama wants to raise the possibility that they oppose him just because they don't like him.

At the same time, casting the debate in such personal terms does carry considerable risk. The emerging picture of Obama's tenure, after all, is one of a president who couldn't make Congress bend to his will to get things done.

Those on the left might not think that's a fair characterization -- given the consistent and united GOP opposition and the GOP-controlled House -- but poll after poll has shown the American people starting to believe that Obama isn't a strong leader, and his inability to override or cajole the GOP opposition is a big part of that. A recent poll showed 54 percent of Americans said Obama "cannot lead and get the job done," while another poll showed views of his effectiveness have actually dipped below his overall approval rating.

Claiming the other side is picking on you because it doesn't like you doesn't exactly rebut the idea that you're a weak leader. But there is also an argument for his kind of strategy working.

Obama's strength, from the start of his presidency, has been his personality. For a long time when his approval ratings dropped, people still personally liked him and thought his heart was in the right place. The GOP, meanwhile, is not held in such high regard. The more Obama can make this a battle of personalities, the better for Democrats.

In addition, the White House and Democrats need to cast Republicans as not dealing in good faith. And while saying that 'Republicans are obstructing me' could be chalked up to partisan politics and legitimate ideological differences, saying 'Republicans are obstructing me because they don't like me' suggests that the GOP has some ulterior motives.

What are those ulterior motives? Obama hasn't said, but other Democrats have suggested race plays a role. They include House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) and, on Sunday, Attorney General Eric Holder.

“There's a certain level of vehemence, it seems to me, that's directed at me [and] directed at the president,” Holder told ABC News. “You know, people talking about taking their country back. … There's a certain racial component to this for some people. I don’t think this is the thing that is a main driver, but for some there's a racial animus.”

Obama hasn't gone nearly as far -- though he has suggested that his race plays a role in people's perceptions of him, both for better and for worse -- but he does seem to be hinting in that direction. And if he does start casting it in racial terms, you can bet it will be a topic of considerable debate heading into the 2014 election year.

The question is whether that's a debate the White House -- and Democrats -- want to have.

Aaron Blake covers national politics and writes regularly for The Fix, the Post’s top political blog.
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Aaron Blake | July 14