President Obama is looking for a moment to draw a line in the sand.
The only problem is, he’s not a line-drawing kinda guy.
If any markers were laid down at today’s downsized-from-dinner meeting with GOP congressional leaders, it wasn’t evident from the bland comments everyone made afterward. “A very frank conversation,” John Boehner said. “The beginning of a new dialogue,” Obama said. “There’s no particular reason we can’t find areas of agreement,” Mitch McConnell said.
OK, the gathering was billed as a fence-mending session, so no one was expecting a blast of hot rhetoric.
But Obama’s accommodating style was also on display Monday, when he stepped before the microphones to announce a two-year freeze on federal pay. Ronald Reagan might have thrown down the rhetorical gauntlet about a wasteful government bureaucracy. Obama cast the move as a painful sacrifice, offering a tribute to “doctors and nurses who care for our veterans, scientists who search for better treatments and cures…” (And he still got guff from Republicans who said they should have been included in the largely symbolic slashing.)
As the White House plots its post-shellacking strategy, one top official insists “there will be lines we won’t cross”—and that the president will look for opportunities to dramatize such moments.
• Mark McKinnon: The Real News from the Obama-GOP MeetingAs the White House plots its post-shellacking strategy, one top official insists “there will be lines we won’t cross”—and that the president will look for opportunities to dramatize such moments. At the same time, this official acknowledges that being “defiant” is “not the president’s personality,” which suggests he will try to blur rather than define the lines of partisanship.
Administration spokesmen were quick to play down expectations for today’s sit-down with Boehner and McConnell, which looked more like an elaborate ballet than a serious negotiating session. Ever since the Republicans snubbed Obama by saying they were too busy to meet on the earlier date he suggested, both sides have been more intent on appearing cooperative than actually negotiating over substance. They know most voters want them to work things out, which is why the other guys should stop being so intransigent.
The GOP’s approach in the last two years has basically been to give Obama a fat lip rather than compete on the court. “We’re not naïve about the political forces propelling the Republican Party,” the White House official says, insisting the president will fight for “core principles” while cutting reasonable deals where he can.
The silver lining of dealing with Speaker Boehner, this official adds, is that Republicans now “have real skin in the game”—that is, they have to produce a real budget with real spending cuts to live up to their deficit-slashing rhetoric, rather than jeering from the sidelines.
If Obama wanted to get into the line-drawing business, he could hardly ask for a better opportunity than the debate over the Bush tax cuts. He wants to extend the breaks for 98 percent of taxpayers, but campaigned on ending the breaks for families earning more than $250,000. Only a third of the public wants the lower rates preserved for the most affluent. Obama could raise the limit, wield a veto threat and dare the Republicans to vote for tax breaks for millionaires.
But instead of a dramatic gesture—with rates scheduled to rise on Jan. 1—the White House has been sending signals about a willingness to extend all the tax cuts by a couple of years.
Obama seemed to be taking a stand in his post-meeting remarks, saying it would be “unwise and unfair” to add $700 billion to the deficit by keeping the tax breaks for the richest Americans. But then he pivoted to talk about “common ground” and tapped two top aides to huddle with the GOP “to break through this logjam”—Washington-speak for a mushy compromise. Not exactly a “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall” moment.
Seconds later, Obama took on the role of political analyst. Often, he said, “both sides come to the table, they read their talking points, they head out to the microphones, trying to win the cycle—that’s a game we can no longer afford…Let’s try not to work the Washington spin cycle.” He is exactly right, but such above-the-fray comments neither rally the base nor put the opposition on notice. And the president’s eloquent appeals to reason have gained him little yardage in the past.
After the election, there was plenty of pundit chatter about whether Obama would have to steal a page from Bill Clinton’s triangulation playbook. But his advisers see a number of crucial differences from 1995: The Democrats still control the Senate, so fewer objectionable bills will reach the president’s desk. The Republican Party has shifted to the right and is hardly as popular as the new Gingrich Congress was at the outset, with 63 percent of voters in a new Quinnipiac poll disapproving of the GOP’s performance in Congress (and an even higher 66 percent disapproving of the Democrats). What’s more, the media were less polarized, and Fox News was yet a twinkle in Rupert Murdoch’s eye.
The courtship of Boehner and McConnell won’t end today, of course. The president will issue more invitations, perhaps throw a couple of cocktail parties or have key Republicans over for a movie in the White House theater.
By the fall, though, White House officials expect the dynamic to change. The two leaders will no longer be the face of the GOP as the media spotlight swings to the Republican presidential contenders. Obama still needs the lawmakers to prove he can break the Washington gridlock, but the political dynamic will be shaped by the 2012 crowd—perhaps, depending on some dinner conversations in Wasilla, including Sarah Palin. And none of them will be looking for common ground.
Howard Kurtz is The Daily Beast's Washington bureau chief. He also hosts CNN's weekly media program Reliable Sources on Sundays at 11 a.m. ET. The longtime media reporter and columnist for The Washington Post, Kurtz is the author of five books.