President Obama acknowledges that there is friction in his relationships with the leaders of Congress. In a just-released interview, he blames his problems on “deeply ideological” Republicans, insisting that his legislative agenda would not fare better on Capitol Hill even if he spent more time in Washington’s social scene.
In a lengthy Oval Office interview with Time’s Fareed Zakaria on Wednesday, the president spoke mostly about foreign policy, rebutting Republican criticisms of his dealings with Iran, Afghanistan, and China. But it was when he discussed Congress that the president offered fresh insights as to why he thinks he has failed to get more from Capitol Hill, particularly on taxes and deficits.
“When it comes to Congress, the issue is not personal relationships," Obama said. "My suspicion is that this whole critique has to do with the fact that I don’t go to a lot of Washington parties and, as a consequence, the Washington press corps maybe just doesn’t feel like I’m in the mix enough with them, and they figure, well, if I’m not spending time with them, I must be cold and aloof.”
Obama said he avoids the Washington social scene because of his family obligations. “The fact is, I’ve got a 13-year-old and 10-year-old daughter," he said. "And so, no, Michelle and I don’t do the social scene, because as busy as we are, we have a limited amount of time, and we want to be good parents at a time that’s vitally important for our kids.”
But Obama rejected that as the reason why his relations are so rocky with the Republican majority in the House. “The reason we’re not getting enough done right now is because you’ve got a Congress that is deeply ideological and sees a political advantage in not getting stuff done,” he said. He insisted that he and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, “get along fine,” recalling their much-publicized golf game last year. “We had a great time playing golf together. That’s not the issue. The problem was that no matter how much golf we played or no matter how much we yukked it up, he had trouble getting his caucus to go along with doing the responsible thing on a whole bunch of issues over the past year.”
Obama also vigorously rebutted the suggestion that another reason for his failure to work out a deficit deal with Congress is because he is guilty of “walking away” from the recommendations of his own Simpson-Bowles Commission when it issued its report in December 2010. He told Time that is “just nonsense.” Noting that the heart of the commission’s report was “a balanced plan” of spending cuts and entitlement reforms, he said, “I did embrace Simpson-Bowles” because that was the basis of the administration’s proposals and something that he “consistently argued for.”
But he also added that the commission’s report was not enough. “There wasn’t any magic in Simpson-Bowles,” he said. “They didn’t have some special sauce or formula that avoided us making these tough choices. They’re the same choices that I’ve said I’m prepared to make. And the only reason it hasn’t happened is because the Republicans were unwilling to do anything on revenue. Zero. Zip. Nada.”
Pressed by Zakaria, he rejected any criticism that he has been cool and aloof with foreign leaders and failed to build strong personal relationships internationally. He said the friendships and “bonds of trust” he has with other leaders are “a big part of what has allowed us to execute effective diplomacy.” He said the other leaders trust him. “And that’s part of the reason why we’ve been able to forge these close working relationships and gotten a whole bunch of stuff done.”
And the president left little doubt that he is prepared to vigorously defend his foreign-policy record against the likely Republican nominee, Mitt Romney. Reminded that Romney has called him timid, indecisive, and nuanced, the president said he is waiting until the GOP battle is over, suggesting that much of the rhetoric today is “playing to their base until the primary season is over.” He said after the nomination is won, “we’ll have a serious debate about foreign policy,” adding, “I will feel very confident about being able to put my record before the American people and saying that America is safer, stronger, and better positioned to win the future than it was when I came into office.”
Overall, he said, “I think it’s going to be pretty hard to argue that we have not executed a strategy over the last three years that has put America in a stronger position than it was when we, than when I, came into office.”
Obama particularly dismissed Republican accusations that he has been weak in trying to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. He took credit for rallying international opposition to Iran’s nuclear program, stating that “Iran now faces a unified world community. Iran is isolated; its standing in the region is diminished. It is feeling enormous economic pressure.”
Like most presidents, Obama seemed to prefer aspects of foreign policy to working on domestic issues with a balky Congress. “When I’m working with my foreign-policy team,” he said, “there’s just not a lot of extraneous noise. There’s not a lot of posturing and positioning and how this is going to play on cable news ... that whole political circus that has come to dominate so much of Washington applies less to the foreign-policy arena.”