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Divide and Conquer

The president’s real agenda.

Jul 25, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 42 • By FRED BARNES
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The president’s soaring confidence is reflected in his three press conferences. On June 29, he concentrated on attacking Republicans. On July 11, he was more statesmanlike. On July 15, he grinned and bantered with reporters. With a few exceptions, they’re an easy mark for him.

Their questions are mostly softballs. Asked if he still has hope for a bipartisan agreement, Obama said he does. According to the transcript, this followed: “Don’t you remember my campaign? (Laughter).”

The president has been less genial away from the prying eyes of the press and the public. In the private talks, he’s dominated the discussion with the eight most senior members of Congress in an overbearing way not likely to lead to compromise. He’s been argumentative. He’s come across as President Blowhard.

After Sperling briefed the group on the deficit cap proposal, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi addressed another subject. When a Republican participant criticized the deficit cap, Obama interrupted with a monologue. When the Republican tried to speak a second time, the president quickly cut him off and delivered another sermon on why the criticism was wrong.

Obama has taken the tack that he must respond to everything that’s said, whether by a Republican, a Democrat, or even Biden. And his responses, like those in his press conferences, are never brief. But who’s going to complain about Obama’s verbosity, at least in his presence? He’s the president.

The contrast with the Biden talks is stark. Biden is among the most likable people in Washington, and after 36 years in the Senate, he knows how to run a meeting amicably. He took the trouble to confer with participants to decide beforehand what should be discussed at the meetings. 

Republicans believe Obama isn’t used to being challenged. “Any time you take a policy difference from him and stick to it, he doesn’t like it,” House majority leader Eric Cantor says. Cantor has taken exception to Obama frequently. He may be the president’s least favorite Republican. Kyl, who’s also objected repeatedly to Obama’s ideas, is probably next on the list. But in his case, the president hasn’t let on.

The Obama presidency was three days old when the first Obama-Cantor run-in occurred. When Cantor raised a question about a tax credit, Obama declined to argue the merits. “I won,” he said. “So I think on that one, I trump you.” A few weeks later, at a White House summit on entitlement reform, he characterized Cantor as an obstructionist. Obama added, “I’m going to keep on talking to Eric Cantor. Someday, sooner or later, he’s going to say, ‘Boy, Obama had a good idea.’ ”

That day hasn’t arrived. In the White House deliberations, House Speaker John Boehner has deferred to Cantor, just as McConnell has to Kyl. Cantor has argued relentlessly for spending cuts and against raising taxes. When he brought up the possibility of an abbreviated extension of the debt limit last week, the president answered with a lecture. “Don’t call my bluff,” he said. “I am not afraid to veto and I will take it to the American people. .  .  . This may bring my presidency down, but I will not yield on this.”

Even before this clash, the White House had made Cantor its villain-of-the-moment. Democrats and the press joined in the Cantor-bashing. The media were quickly brimming with leaks from the talks aimed at putting Cantor in an unfavorable light and causing friction between him and Boehner. In a Senate speech, Reid said Cantor “shouldn’t even be at the table.” Democratic senator Chuck Schumer of New York also chimed in. The Democratic Senate Campaign Committee sent out a fundraising letter attacking Cantor.

The pillorying of Cantor could have been spontaneous, but Republicans doubt it. Obama grew up in the politics of Chicago, an Illinois Republican noted. “The president views Eric as a greater threat to him than Boehner,” the Republican told me. The treatment of Cantor is “Chicago-style politics​—​destroy him.”

Cantor has survived and emerged safe, sound, and a hero to conservatives and the class of House Republicans elected last year. And Boehner isn’t going to part ways with Cantor. He remembers Obama’s attempt last year to make him the chief villain in Washington. It didn’t work. Now Obama is running out of devils to berate. Could McConnell be next? Targets that big Obama can’t handle.

Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.

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