Ruth Marcus
Ruth Marcus
Opinion Writer

Obama has to be dealmaker in chief

When it comes to Republicans, President Obama sees himself as a kind of reverse Sally Field: They don’t like him. They really, really, don’t like him.

Judging by the junior high school behavior of House members who snarkily live-tweeted the president’s closed-door meeting Wednesday, this seems a rather accurate assessment.

Ruth Marcus

An editorial writer specializing in politics, the budget and other domestic issues, she also writes a weekly column and contributes to the PostPartisan blog.

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Ann Telnaes animation: House Speaker John Boehner refuses to raise the tax rates on the rich.

Ann Telnaes animation: House Speaker John Boehner refuses to raise the tax rates on the rich.

“Stuck getting Obama ‘charm offensive’ right now when we should be talking about #balancedbudget . . . or is it ‘offensive charm’?” tweeted Arizona Republican Matt Salmon, as chronicled by Slate’s David Weigel.

“President to House GOP: Closing WH to Americans was not his decision, it was the Secret Service. (eyes rolling),” added John Fleming (R) of Louisiana.

“What a coincidence, as smoke rose above the Vatican Prez Obama was on Capitol Hill blowing smoke in our face,” contributed California’s Dana Rohrabacher (R).

Fiddling with your smartphone while anyone is talking is rude. Fiddling while the president is talking is really rude. And fiddling to send juvenile tweets while the president is talking is really, really rude.

#whatwouldyourmothersay?

Obama in some ways had anticipated this churlish response in an interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos the previous day, when he described his theory of bargaining with congressional Republicans.

Stephanopoulos: “So, you might poison the well if you put forward these ideas.”

Obama: “You know — I think whatever I’m for, it’s very hard for a Republican to also be for. I think they always have to be a little bit — you know, maintain some distance.”

The president has made this point before, and maybe he’s right. Yet this analysis leaves him in a distinctly unpresidential posture — not leaning in, but holding back.

Again, Stephanopoulos: “But even the ones who’ve seen your plans say they need to see more.”

Obama: “I understand. Which is why, at some point, I think I take myself out of this.”

The president portrayed himself as a sort of maitre d’ for budget negotiations, setting the table for others to forge an agreement. “What I’m trying to do is create an atmosphere where Democrats and Republicans can go ahead, get together, and try to get something done,” he said.

It’s true that there are times when presidential intervention in delicate congressional negotiations can be counterproductive. It’s certainly true that there are times when congressional Democrats have advised the White House to butt out. But leading through diffidence is not a traditional presidential strategy, nor is there much reason to expect it to produce results.

In the end, as Obama himself understands and has told the other side, he is the one who is going to have to sell the notion of unpopular changes — curbing Medicare spending, reducing Social Security benefits or curtailing popular tax breaks — to a nation that says it wants a balanced bargain but may balk when that bargain is translated into painful specifics. After all, Obama is the only dealmaker with no reelection worries.

For the moment, the White House has decided, in concert with Senate Democrats, to hold back on submitting its budget. Republicans have been howling over the insult to regular budget order; Democrats say the delay is no biggie because the president’s blueprint would be dead whenever it arrives.

In a strange way, though, the waiting-for-Obama budget scenario may increase its importance. Will the White House, for example, include its still-on-the-table proposal to change the way Social Security cost-of-living adjustments are calculated? This provision is noticeably absent from the budgets offered both by House Republican Paul Ryan and Senate Democrat Patty Murray. For Obama to include it would inflame liberals; to omit it would raise questions about his sincerity.

The delayed budget offers the president the opportunity, if he chooses, not necessarily to split the difference — he has called for more health-care savings in the first decade, for example, than either congressional version — but to sketch out a better way.

Speaking to Stephanopoulos, the president sounded distinctly pessimistic about the prospects for such a bargain and disturbingly unconcerned about failing to reach one. That, he said, would be more missed opportunity than “crisis.”

Perhaps he’s posturing; if the president is seen as coveting a deal too much, he won’t be able to get the kind he wants. Perhaps it’s simple realism; Republicans’ refusal to consider revenue raised by curtailing loopholes is unacceptable, and the president shouldn’t accept a cuts-only deal.

But failure would not only tarnish Republicans; it would also stain Obama’s legacy. Great presidential leadership entails figuring out how to deal with even those who do not like you.

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