Friday afternoon showed how much movement the president can instigate on foreign policy, and how helpless he can be when it comes to acts of Congress.
Speaking before reporters at the White House, President Obama said he engaged in the first direct talks an American president has had with an Iranian president since 1979. In that telephone conversation, the president said, "I have made clear that we respect the right of the Iranians to access peaceful nuclear energy, so the test will be meaningful, transparent, and verifiable actions which can also bring relief from the comprehensive international sanctions that are currently in place."
It's a move that can begin to thaw the long-held sanctions and lack of diplomacy with the country that only a year ago the U.S. seemed destined to meet in military conflict—though there is still speculation that Rouhani's outreach is insincere, and just a means to end sanctions on his country. As Foreign Policy magazine puts it, unlike his predecessor, Rouhani "has the political acumen not to publicize" his animosity toward the United States.
Regardless, contrast that conversation to the debt ceiling.
If we've seen this episode play out before, we've also heard the president respond to it in a similar way. His remarks were boilerplate. He's not going to budge on the Affordable Care Act in order to fund the government. And he again called Republicans out on what he sees as debt-ceiling hostage-taking. "So over the next three days, House Republicans will have to decide whether to join the Senate and keep the government open or shut it down because they can't get their way on an issue that has nothing to do with the deficit."
Obama, as he has before, tried to turn the debate away from congressional mechanics and Obamacare funding and toward people who would be impacted by a government shutdown, or a default on the debt. "Nobody gets to hurt our economy, and millions of innocent people," Obama said, " just because there are a couple of laws you do not like." Speaking to the Republican faction led by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, that is looking to defund Obamacare, the president said that you "do not threaten to burn the house down just because you haven't gotten 100 percent of your way." A shutdown, or a busting of the debt-ceiling, could be a threat not just to the U.S. economic recovery, the president said, but to the entire global economy.
So while the president might reach "a comprehensive solution" with a foreign government that has been blustery and caustic, he can't seem to do the same thing with his own.
Update (4:32 p.m.): Speaker Boehner's spokesman Brendan Buck sent around this quick quote after the statement from the president:
The House will take action that reflects the fundamental fact that Americans don't want a government shutdown and they don't want the train wreck that is Obamacare. Grandstanding from the president, who refuses to even be a part of the process, won't bring Congress any closer to a resolution.
Nothing here on Iran, of course. As to what Americans actually want, "no shutdown, no Obamacare" isn't so clear-cut.