David Frum

01.16.13

Obama Gets Tough

In his first term, the president reached out to his opponents. Now, says David Frum, he seems intent on steamrolling them.
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President Barack Obama speaks during the final news conference of his first term at the White House, Jan. 14, 2013. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

In 2012 tens of millions of anti-Obama dollars were raised from a small group of wealthy businessmen with a strong commitment to the state of Israel: men like casino mogul Sheldon Adelson and hedge-fund director Paul Singer. They lost. Obama won. And what did the reelected president do? He chose as defense secretary the candidate these men found maximally obnoxious, former senator Chuck Hagel.

In his first term, President Obama reached out to political opponents. He praised Republicans, shaped his stimulus program to please Republicans, based his health plan on Republican ideas—even showed up at the Republican congressional retreat in January 2010.

The reelected Obama, however, has struck out on a very different path. In the two months since November, he has played much rougher than in all the four previous years.

Reelected Obama played rough on the fiscal cliff. The president’s liberal supporters complain that the president retreated from his stated goal: raise taxes on those individuals earning more than $200,000 a year. In the end, the Bush tax rates were retained for individuals earning up to $400,000. Big retreat? Not if you appreciate that the president’s real goal was to compel as many Republicans as possible to vote for some tax increase, any tax increase.

Obama presented Republicans with a stark choice: see taxes rise on all high-earners or protect some by yourselves voting to raise taxes on others. Obama extracted 85 Republican votes, including former vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan’s. Even more humiliating for the GOP: because 151 Republicans voted no, including the No. 2 and No. 3 Republican House leaders, Speaker John Boehner was forced to rely on Democratic votes to pass his measure. Obama’s price for protecting $200,000 to $400,000 earners from a tax increase? Rupturing the fabled unity of the House GOP caucus.

A government shutdown would end disastrously for the congressional GOP. Which is precisely why Obama is goading the Republicans to do it.

Now comes the even more emotional debt-ceiling debate, and once again Obama is playing rough.

House Republicans have backed themselves into an awkward place on the debt ceiling: unwilling to vote to lift it, but equally unwilling to take the blame for not lifting it. They’ve been looking for an escape from the dilemma. In 2011 Obama cut them a face-saving deal. This time, he’s insisted, no deal. His White House has rejected every brain wave that might de-escalate the confrontation, including the notorious “trillion-dollar coin” concept. His strategy—as he said at his Jan. 14 press conference—has been to reduce the Republicans’ options to a stark binary pair: “They can act responsibly and pay America’s bills or they can act irresponsibly and put America through another economic crisis.” Or, in other words: They can blow up the credit of the United States—or they can yield. That’s the choice, there’s nothing else on the menu.

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Obama may be getting serious, but he still likes to party. Watch the president's boogie-down, drink-up highlights.

Facing that stark choice, Republicans in Congress and the country have indicated to the party base that they will probably have to yield. The president has insisted, however, that Republicans will receive nothing in return for yielding. The next round of negotiations, over the budget, starts all over again, from zero. And the effect of this hard line is to push the Republicans to look for another place to make a last stand: this time over the 2014 budget. More and more voices are heard on the conservative side urging a government shutdown in the hope of somehow drawing the president into negotiations.

Politico reported Jan. 13:

GOP officials said more than half of their members are prepared to allow default unless Obama agrees to dramatic cuts he has repeatedly said he opposes. Many more members, including some party leaders, are prepared to shut down the government to make their point. House Speaker John Boehner “may need a shutdown just to get it out of their system,” said a top GOP leadership adviser. “We might need to do that for member-management purposes—so they have an endgame and can show their constituents they’re fighting.”

A government shutdown would end disastrously for the congressional GOP. Which is precisely why Obama is goading the Republicans to do it. In the words of Club for Growth president Chris Chocola: “They [Republican House members] think this is the only way to get Obama’s attention.” That, of course, is just what President Obama wants them to think—so they’ll do just what President Obama wants them to do. What he wants is not a deal—not anymore, or anyway, not now. What he wants is a reckless Republican overreach, leading to public outrage, leading to a Republican rout. The president has been often quoted as saying he wants to “break the fever.” Translated into plainer English: he wants to break his opponents.