After his recent lunch with Obama, Ryan (R-Wis.) revealed that it was “the first time I’ve ever had a conversation with the president that lasted more than two minutes.” Think about that. We’ve been through debt ceilings, super committees, sequesters and fiscal cliffs, yet the president waited until his fifth year in office to actually sit down and talk with the Republican chairman of the House budget committee? That is simply beyond comprehension.
It’s not just Ryan who is getting a sudden dose of love from POTUS. On Wednesday, Obama went up to Capitol Hill to meet with the House Republican caucus. According to Politico, “The last time Obama met with the House Republican conference was in Jan. 2010 at the party retreat in Baltimore.” 2010. More than three years ago.
Recall that only a few weeks ago, Obama couldn’t be bothered to sit down with Republicans as the sequester approached. He was too busy holding campaign-style rallies and issuing apocalyptic warnings of the plagues and pestilence that would soon descend upon the land if the GOP did not bend to his will and accept another round of tax increases. Now, all of a sudden, the apocalypse has been postponed, and Obama is on a charm offensive.
What changed? Here’s a clue: A new Washington Post-ABC News poll found “nearly three-quarters say they are feeling no impact on their lives [from the sequester], and fewer than half expect a toll on their family finances if the cuts continue.” A McClatchy-Marist poll shows that 59 percent of Americans say the sequester will either have no impact at all on them or would have a positive impact. And here is the kicker: Marist found that when it comes to handling “the biggest political clash of the year — over the federal budget and how to curb deficits — voters split 44 percent to 42 percent between preferring Congress or Obama.”
More Americans approve of the way Congress — the most unpopular institution in the land — is handling of the sequester than the president.
The sequester has been something of a disaster for Obama. From obfuscating its origins, to exaggerating its impact, the White House’s blame the GOP strategy has backfired. Americans, it turns out, don’t like being misled.
They don’t like it when the secretary of education warms that there are “literally now teachers who are getting pink slips” because of the sequester — only to find out that in fact no pink slips were issued.
They don’t like it when the secretary of health and human services warns that 70,000 students would see their Head Start programs shut down — only to have her spokesman later clarify that the number “should not be taken literally and serves as an estimate based on ‘historic funding levels.’”
They don’t like it when the president warns that, “starting tomorrow, everybody here, cleaning the floors at the Capitol, they’re going to have less pay. The janitors, the security guards. They just got a pay cut.” — only to learn that the Capitol superintendent had to send out an e-mail to his alarmed staff reassuring them that Obama’s statement was “NOT true.”
So now, in an effort to mend fences, the president who would not give Ryan the time of day for his first four years in office is suddenly inviting him to the White House for lunch, hosting high-profile dinners with GOP senators and making forays to the Capitol for meetings with House Republicans.
Let’s be clear: These are not signs of a new spirit of bipartisanship in the White House. They are damage control.
The question for the president is whether the damage can be controlled. It is one thing to make a strategic misstep, quite another to be caught making things up out of whole cloth. Americans may be willing to forgive the former, but trust, when squandered, is very hard to regain. The problem with crying “wolf” is that once people figure out you’re not telling the truth, they don’t take your cries seriously any more. So the next time Obama warns us of a coming disaster, Americans will be forgiven for thinking: “Remember what he said about the sequester?”
The president was right about one thing: The sequester did do immediate damage — not to teachers, air traffic controllers or the military, mind you, but to Obama’s credibility. That’s damage no charm offensive can quickly erase.
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