Republicans don’t love Barack Obama. But do they fear him?

October 17, 2013

Yeah, there is a debt deal. But the president is not impressed. We do not know what McKayla Maroney thinks about it. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

It's easy to look at the resolution of the government shutdown and debt ceiling standoff as a big win for the Obama administration. Federal employees are back at work. There will be no federal default. The administration gave up no meaningful policy concessions to achieve it. Republicans got almost nothing of what they wanted.

But in addressing the nation Thursday morning, the president was at pains to make clear that he doesn't view this week as a victory for himself, or for anything else. The president is not at all impressed with a deal that really merely fulfills the basic responsibilities of governing -- you know, keeping the government operational, paying its debts, not creating a financial blowup -- that little stuff.

"There are no winners here. These last few weeks have inflicted completely unnecessary damage on our economy," the president said.

Obama showed little inclination to return to the kumbaya-let's-all-get-along tone of his 2008 campaign. This was a combative Barack Obama who wants hard-liners in the Republican caucus who pushed for a government shutdown and the threat of a debt default to know that he will never yield to those threats the way he did in 2011.

"All of us need to stop focusing on the lobbyists, and the bloggers, and the talking heads on radio and the professional activists who profit from conflict, and focus on what the majority of Americans sent us here to do, and that's grow this economy, create good jobs, strengthen the middle class, educate our kids, lay the foundation for broad-based prosperity and get our fiscal house in order for the long haul," Obama said. He directed the message at "all of us," but there is little doubt he meant it specifically for Republicans who live in fear of becoming a target of talk-radio hosts or tea party groups or the Club for Growth.

At the same time, the president still wants to get something done in his remaining three years in office, so he offered hints of magnanimity. The debt ceiling deal calls for yet another committee to try to sculpt a longer-term budget deal. This is an area where there could be some actual room for compromise on both sides, with Democrats gaining some relief from sequestration spending cuts in exchange for some longer-term reductions in entitlement spending that Republicans seek. Tax reform could be a positive-sum game in which both parties end up with a tax system they like better than the current one.

In effect, after taking a hard, nonnegotiable line on the debt ceiling and the funding of the government, Obama signaled that he is open to negotiating in arenas where the threat of blowing up the economy is off the table. The same applies to the other policy areas he mentioned -- immigration reform and a new farm bill.

The question is whether the bad blood from the debt ceiling standoff makes some actual deal-making on those issues more or less likely. It is a test of Machiavelli's theory that it is better to be feared than loved, if you can't be both. After five years in office, Obama has taken to heart that Republicans will never love him (or like him, or even tolerate him).

But will they fear him enough that some actual legislation could happen in the next few months? Will even lawmakers who loathe the president and his policies decide they are better off entering the 2014 election with a record of some actual accomplishment, rather than leaving voters with sour taste from the shutdown and near-default? Will mainstream conservatives decide they fear the president and center-right business interests more than they do the far-right extreme of the conservative coalition?

If the answer is yes, the nation could get a more sensible approach to deficit reduction, a better tax code and a more reasonable immigration policy out of all this. If the answer is no, it will be a long 13 months between now and the 2014 election, with many more forced crises and little actual lawmaking.

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Ezra Klein | October 17, 2013