He is dining with Republicans after advisers openly mocked suggestions that he do so. He is visiting Capitol Hill after telling aides that such a gesture was beneath him and the dignity of his office. And, as an ultimate indignity, he is talking to reporters. What’s gotten into President Obama?
A better question might be what has left the president – and the answer would be: Much of his political capital.
Obama’s sudden burst of public outreach coincides with a drop in his approval ratings, noted first by Democratic pollsters advising the White House last week and now surfacing in a spate of public polls. This raises the uncomfortable question: Is this schmooze-a-thon a legitimate act of humility and leadership or a cynical public display?
I can’t answer that question because I don’t pretend to know Obama’s state of mind. I can tell you that some of his advisers are no more convinced that this strategy will work than they were a few days ago.
“This is a joke. We’re wasting the president’s time and ours,” complained a senior White House official who was promised anonymity so he could speak frankly. “I hope you all (in the media) are happy because we’re doing it for you.”
Another said the president was sincerely trying to find common ground with stubborn Republicans. “But if we do it,” the aide hastened, “it won’t be because we had steaks and Merlot with a few senators.”
It takes exceptionally talented and self-confident people to run a White House, and there is no shortage of both attributes in the West Wing today. But resounding re-election victories have a way of converting confidence into hubris that no amount of talent can overcome.
This may have been the case with the Obama White House, which declared from the start of his second term that Republicans wouldn’t compromise – not on the president's terms, anyway. Obama and his team declared a “grand bargain” on the nation’s long-term debt impossible and publicly predicted that voters would blame Republicans alone for the imposition of sequestration cuts.
They were wrong. While he remains vastly more popular than Congress, particularly congressional Republicans, the president has seen his approval rating drop to the lowest level in more than a year, with more voters disapproving of his performance than approving, according to a new McClatchy-Marist poll.
The survey, which reflects other public and private polls, shows that voters are split on the question of who has the best approach to taming budget deficits, with 44 percent citing Congress and just 42 percent preferring Obama.
This was predictable. The White House was warned by Democratic allies in Congress and on K Street that, fair or not, voters ultimately punish presidents for malfeasance in Washington. Even more jarring than Obama's lack of engagement was his public protestations that there was nothing he could do to strike a deal with the GOP. “It made him look weak,” said a Democratic strategist with close ties to the White House. “It made him look – can I used this word? – impotent.”
Obama is at least going through the motions now. He has broken bread with Republicans senators and with House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan. He is making four trips to Capitol Hill this week. He conducted a rare news conference last week, and is interviewing with ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos.
On the particulars of a budget deal, Obama has offered more in the way of spending cuts and entitlement reforms than the GOP has on new revenue in 2013. Trouble is, voters ultimately don’t give presidents much credit for trying – only for succeeding, and that requires painful compromises by both sides, including deeper cuts than Obama has proposed.
Is he willing to do that? Would progressive commentators and activists allow it? Will the GOP raise taxes beyond the $600 billion in 2012? We don’t know. There are many limits on what any president could accomplish under these circumstances. But something has gotten into Obama this week, and it’s better than nothing.