Tea Partiers Say Obama’s Too Mean

Demonstrators with the Tea Party protest the Internal Revenue Service targeting of the Tea Party and similar groups during a rally called 'Audit the IRS' outside the Capitol, June 19, 2013.
National Journal
Billy House
Oct. 9, 2013, 5:41 p.m.

When tea-party Re­pub­lic­ans ar­rived in Con­gress in 2011, many were en­er­gized and ready to shake up Wash­ing­ton — whatever the cost. But now, some are claim­ing that it is Pres­id­ent Obama who is play­ing too rough.

Amid the gov­ern­ment shut­down and debt-ceil­ing stan­doff — which has raised rhet­or­ic sharply — they say the pres­id­ent has de­mon­ized what they con­sider healthy polit­ic­al op­pos­i­tion.

“The dif­fer­ence is, I don’t think his pre­de­cessors have ant­ag­on­ized the oth­er side,” says Rep. Aus­tin Scott, R-Ga., who was pres­id­ent of the tea-party-packed House Re­pub­lic­an fresh­man class last ses­sion.

“Bill Clin­ton did not in­ten­tion­ally ant­ag­on­ize Re­pub­lic­ans,” Scott said. “And I think that most of those [earli­er] pres­id­ents would have wel­comed the op­por­tun­ity to ne­go­ti­ate. And if they’re right on their points, then cer­tainly they’d want to ne­go­ti­ate.”

Sim­il­ar sen­ti­ment was echoed by sev­er­al of Scott’s fel­low tea parti­ers Wed­nes­day.

“I was tea party be­fore there was a tea party,” said Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ar­iz., who has served in Con­gress since 2003. Obama, he said, “has tried to make some malevol­ent ghost, or evil spir­it, out of the tea party.”

Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., a mem­ber of the tea-party caucus who fam­ously yelled “You lie!” to Obama dur­ing a speech be­fore a joint ses­sion of Con­gress, was among those who agreed Wed­nes­day with Scott’s view that the pres­id­ent has been too ant­ag­on­ist­ic.

“Wheth­er it’s per­son­al or not, it’s not good for the coun­try,” said Wilson, who apo­lo­gized after his out­burst on the House floor, made when Obama said the health care re­form law would not cov­er un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants.

The com­ments came a day after Obama’s news con­fer­ence, in which the pres­id­ent did use some rhet­or­ic that House con­ser­vat­ives found dif­fi­cult to swal­low, liken­ing them to ex­tor­tion­ists. “I’m not go­ing to [ne­go­ti­ate] un­til the more ex­treme parts of the Re­pub­lic­an Party stop for­cing John Boehner to is­sue threats about our eco­nomy,” Obama said, re­fer­ring to the Re­pub­lic­an House speak­er. “We can’t make ex­tor­tion routine as part of our demo­cracy.”

Of course, Con­gress in gen­er­al is not a gentle place. Tea-party Re­pub­lic­ans have taken plenty of at­tacks from the le­gis­lat­ive branch as well. Minor­ity Lead­er Nancy Pelosi has called the House tea-party wing “le­gis­lat­ive ar­son­ists” for their de­mands. Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id has called them “an­arch­ists.”

While some might see irony in a group of firebrand re­formers com­plain­ing that Obama has not been a peace­maker, Scott, who re­mains a tea-party fa­vor­ite, said he does not dis­pute that all pres­id­ents have a right to stand up for what they be­lieve. Yet he also says there’s a sense among his col­leagues that Obama just doesn’t like them.

“It’s ob­vi­ous any time he goes on TV,” Scott said. “I mean, words he uses to de­scribe Con­gress, the tone of his voice, what he says, how he says it.”

“The role of the pres­id­ent is to be the peace­maker. And just by defin­i­tion, an ant­ag­on­ist is not a peace­maker. Really, all of our roles should be to be the peace­maker. It doesn’t mean you can’t stand up for what you be­lieve in. But he has been any­thing but that,” Scott said.

Has the rhet­or­ic got­ten too per­son­al?

“It’s not so much per­son­al with many of us,” Scott said.

“I mean, even when we were fresh­men, the only mem­ber of that ad­min­is­tra­tion that ac­tu­ally met with the fresh­man class was [former Treas­ury Sec­ret­ary Timothy] Geithner,” he ad­ded. “Oth­er than that, the ad­min­is­tra­tion just said, “˜They’re anti-Obama, they’re tea-party con­trolled.’ There was no ef­fort, and has been no ef­fort, by that ad­min­is­tra­tion to es­tab­lish any re­la­tion­ships with any­body over here.”

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