They’re flailing. That’s the impression I get from watching Barack Obama and his White House over the past week. Things haven’t gone as they expected. The House Republicans were supposed to cave in on the sequester, as they did on the fiscal cliff at the beginning of the year. They would be so desperate to avoid the sequester’s mandatory defense cuts, the theory went, that they would agree to higher taxes (through closing loopholes) on high earners.
But the Republicans didn’t deal. They decided to take the sequester cuts and make them the basis for a continuing resolution that will fund the government for the rest of the fiscal year.
Obama responded by threatening all sorts of dire consequences — Head Start kids left out in the snow, airline security lines as far as the eye can see, pay cuts for janitors at the Capitol. Republicans would take the blame, the Obama folks believed. Polls showed they were far less popular than the president.
Then, on Tuesday, the administration announced it was canceling tours of the White House. The sequester meant, the administration said, that there wasn’t enough money to host those high-school kids from Waverly, Iowa.
Suddenly, it became apparent that it was Obama’s poll numbers that were falling — not to the level of congressional Republicans’ admittedly dreadful numbers, but enough that the Quinnipiac poll (whose 2012 numbers tilted a bit toward Democrats) showed him with 45 percent approval and 46 percent disapproval.
Then the president who doesn’t like spending much time with even Democratic members of Congress precipitously invited twelve Republican senators to dinner at the Jefferson Hotel. He even paid out of his own pocket. And on Thursday, he invited House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan and ranking Democrat Chris Van Hollen to lunch at the White House. This is the same Paul Ryan whom Obama insulted after inviting him to a presidential speech at George Washington University. Presumably the lunch was insult-free. Meanwhile, a top White House aide was dispatched to make Obama’s case to a heavily Republican audience.
The message coming from the White House seems to be that Obama has made concessions, including spending cuts, and is really, sincerely, truly interested in a grand bargain with Republicans on entitlements.
He has already, the argument goes, agreed to using the chained CPI — an inflation measure that produces lower cost-of-living adjustments to entitlement and other programs. For this, he’s taken some heat from Democrats. So Republicans should understand that he is dealing in good faith, and they should be willing to agree to increased revenues by removing tax preferences for high earners.
The Obama folks are correct in saying that Speaker John Boehner was willing to do that during the summer 2011 grand-bargain negotiations. But that proposed deal did not include tax-rate increases. Now that Obama, in the fiscal-cliff deal, has extracted higher tax rates for people earning more than $400,000, Boehner and other Republicans insist they will not agree to any further revenue increases.
This comes amid stories that Obama’s chief political goal is helping his fellow Democrats win back a House majority in 2014, and while his Organizing for Action (formerly Obama for America) is still cranking out press releases about the dire effects of the sequester.
It’s not unheard of for a politician to publicly threaten the opposing party at the same time he’s offering it private blandishments. But it is sometimes awkward — especially if neither the threats nor the blandishments are entirely credible.
Democrats have some chance of winning the 17 seats they need to regain the House majority. But it’s an uphill climb. Even though Obama won 51 percent of the vote in 2012, he did not carry a majority of House districts.
And there is some chance Republicans will capture the six seats they need for a Senate majority. Seven Democratic incumbents are running in states Mitt Romney carried, and the retirement of incumbent Democrats in West Virginia, Iowa, and, as announced Friday, Michigan may put those seats in play.
As for blandishments, Boehner is not the only Republican who has concluded that Obama is not capable of good-faith negotiating.
Republicans argue that revenues are approaching the norm of 19 percent of gross domestic product and that spending needs to come down more from its historic high of 25 percent of GDP. They’re making a little bit of headway on that by accepting the sequester. Obama’s flailing seems unlikely to persuade them to change course.