The reality was quite different. Around 11 a.m. July 17, John A. Boehner, the House speaker, and Eric Cantor, the majority leader, had slipped through a side entrance, out of view from the bank of television cameras stationed near the front gate off Pennsylvania Avenue. The on-and-off secret negotiations were on again. They had resumed with a Friday meeting at the Capitol. And they seemed to be going so well by the time Obama returned from church that he invited Boehner and Cantor into the Oval Office to talk, just the three of them.
The sermon the president had heard that morning was a stirring Old Testament account of Jacob dreaming of a ladder that stretched to heaven. Sometimes, the pastor had said, “the best adventures occur when we venture into unmarked terrain.” Obama was in a similar frame of mind. Against the vehement advice of many Democrats, including some of his own advisers, Obama was pursuing a compromise with his ideological opponents, a “grand bargain” that would move into unmarked territory, beyond partisan divides, pushing both parties to places they did not want to go. Now might be the moment.
Months later, that moment and the tense, ultimately unsuccessful ones that followed have become a critical issue in Obama’s reelection campaign as the president and his Republican critics lay out competing narratives about his stewardship of the economy and the United States’ fiscal health.
Republicans say those days offer clear evidence that the president is fiscally reckless and determined to tax his way out of the nation’s mounting deficit and debt problems. A Washington Post-ABC News poll this month illustrates Obama’s lingering vulnerability: Only about a third of Americans approve of his handling of the deficit.
From the White House point of view, those few days show a politically selfless president willing to rise above the partisan fray and make difficult choices for the good of the country — if only obstinate Republicans would meet him halfway.
On that Sunday in July, Boehner, the old-school pol from Ohio, seemed willing to hash it out. He had met in private with the president and his aides many times. Their sessions were so sensitive — especially for the speaker, who was dealing with a House teeming with tea party rebels — that Obama’s aides were under strict orders to “protect Boehner” and not talk about his private entreaties. Obama liked Boehner; they got along well during the private sessions and a round of golf. But there was doubt in the White House as to whether the speaker could bring his party along. He “probably could not deliver a pizza,” was one administration aide’s skeptical assessment.