President Obama is of one mind on debts, deficits, and spending. They are not a problem.
More precisely, they are not a problem that requires an overhaul of current spending patterns. In the heat of December’s fiscal-cliff negotiations, Obama told House Speaker John Boehner that America did not have a spending problem but a health care spending problem.
That’s a threshold question for Obama, Boehner, and congressional Republicans.
In the fiscal-cliff negotiations, Obama gave up some heretofore sacred ground on the outer edges of entitlement reforms—agreeing to less-generous consumer price index calculations for federal benefits, including Social Security. He was also open to some form of means-testing for Medicare through higher taxes or reduced benefits for upper-income beneficiaries.
These were genuine concessions, but they were not nearly enough to satisfy House Republicans. GOP members were looking for something that would not only save more money but would occupy a middle ground between the status quo and their two big entitlement-reform ideas: after 10 years, abolishing Medicare’s fee-for-service payment system in favor of a lump-sum benefit that recipients could use to buy insurance coverage on the open market; and block-granting federal Medicaid allotments to states.
No middle ground was found. There is a spending problem. And there is a health care spending problem. It isn’t either or. It’s both.
But there is also another problem. Obama doesn’t seem to know what Republicans want, who they are, how they vote, what motivates them, or how he factors into the equation during tough fiscal negotiations. This is important information, vital to any president trying to cope with, and maneuver around, an opposition party that controls another lever of government—in this case, the House of Representatives. Obama appears genuinely perplexed.
At a White House press conference on Dec. 19, the president said the central problem was him ... or rather Republican animosity toward him.
“They keep on finding ways to say ‘no,’ as opposed to finding ways to say ‘yes,’ ” Obama said. “And I don’t know how much of that just has to do with—it is very hard for them to say ‘yes’ to me. But at some point, they’ve got to take me out of it and think about their voters, and think about what’s best for the country. And if they do that—if they’re not worried about who’s winning and who’s losing; did they score a point on the president; did they extract that last little concession; did they force him to do something he really doesn’t want to do just for the heck of it—and they focus on actually what’s good for the country, I actually think we can get this done.”
It almost sounds as if Obama believed congressional Republicans were obsessed with him—so much so they would ignore the best interests of the country and their own political future. That’s a staggering indictment.
Yet at Monday’s press conference, the last of his first term—half of which was spent dealing with congressional Republicans—Obama appeared to reverse course and attribute GOP behavior to factors only indirectly related to him. The president said he can butter up Republicans at the annual congressional picnic at the White House, and they will still call him a “big-spending socialist.” But it’s not him, he said. It’s something else.
“The reason that, in many cases, Congress votes the way they do, or talks the way they talk, or takes positions in negotiations that they take doesn’t have to do with me,” Obama said. “It has to do with the imperatives that they feel in terms of their own politics, right? They’re worried about their district. They’re worried about what’s going on back home. I think there are a lot of Republicans at this point that feel that given how much energy has been devoted in some of the media that’s preferred by Republican constituencies to demonize me, that it doesn’t look real good socializing with me.” In Obama’s mind, Republicans went from obsessive to indifferent in one month. Republicans couldn’t get over Obama in December but had philosophical and political reasons to oppose him in January. In December, it was all about him; in January, it had nothing to do with him.
This may be a learning curve. It may be a process. Part of the problem is that Obama, by his own words and those of people who worked most closely with him, doesn’t devote much energy to congressional outreach. I’m not talking about mindless encounters at a White House picnic or Christmas party or a photo-op golf game with Boehner. (My CBS News colleague Mark Knoller informs me that in his 114 rounds of golf as president, Obama has played with just two members of Congress: once with Boehner and twice with Democratic Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina).
The harder work is for a president to deal with lawmakers as they often are—petulant, small-minded, paranoid, needy, hyper-excitable about their ideas, and notoriously unaware of considerations outside their committees and prospects for reelection. Disliking these characteristics doesn’t make them go away.
The art of a deal in politics is not to win so much that you remain popular, but to win enough so that you remain popular while your opponent wins enough so that he or she remains popular, too. This isn’t always possible; sometimes such deals muddy philosophical divisions worth fighting over. And yet, this is how the system works when there is a common understanding of—or, at minimum, a grudging appreciation for—each other’s motives, philosophies, and base political needs.
This insight appears to elude Obama.
This article appears in the Jan. 16, 2013, edition of National Journal Daily as What’s the Problem?.