The Magazine

Obama the Bargainer

How to lose friends and alienate Congress

Feb 11, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 21 • By JAY COST
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For the first two years of Obama’s tenure, congressional Republicans did not register with the White House at all. Contact was so sparse that when the GOP took control of the House of Representatives, the White House did not even have Boehner’s cell phone number so the president could place a congratulatory call.

The case of Michigan Republican Dave Camp is illustrative. According to Bob Woodward in The Price of Politics,

 The administration’s approach to Congress was different from what he was used to. He had first come to Washington as a congressional staffer during the Reagan administration. Reagan had deployed administration liaisons all over Congress. Camp could remember Reagan getting on the phone with a lowly freshman congressman to discuss legislation. .  .  . During Obama’s first two years in office, Camp was the ranking Republican on the Democrat-controlled Ways and Means Committee. He was one of the more politically moderate House Republicans. Yet the administration’s Hill staff didn’t even seem to know who he was. He never saw them.

During the debt ceiling battle of 2011, the president again exhibited cluelessness about the motivations of congressional Republicans. Precious time during the month of July was wasted as Obama insisted again and again on decoupling the Bush-era tax cuts, making permanent the cuts for those making under $250,000, and letting the cuts in the high-end rates expire. His argument was that the congressional GOP could avoid the wrath of Grover Norquist because it would not actually have to vote to increase taxes. It seemed never to cross his mind that tax rate increases such as he was proposing were anathema to congressional Republicans.

The bigger problem during the debt ceiling fight, and probably the biggest contributor to the near-default of the country that summer, was Obama’s failure to heed Boehner’s warning that $800 billion in additional tax revenue was his “red line,” above which he could not go. The justification for that figure was that it was all that could be squeezed out of tax reform (and even that was optimistic according to many analysts); beyond that, tax rates would have to be raised in order to bring in more revenue. In late July, after Boehner had made a “grand bargain” offer that included $800 billion in new revenue, Obama asked for another $400 billion. Memories diverge on exactly who said what—Boehner is convinced Obama said he had to have the extra money, while Obama believes he only suggested it. This ambiguity might have been avoided if Obama had not made the rookie mistake of making such a big request over the phone instead of in person. And, anyway, he should have known not to ask, given Boehner’s previous warnings about his red line. Unsurprisingly, the deal blew up shortly afterwards.

It boils down to the difference between listening and waiting to talk. With congressional Republicans, Obama always seems to do the latter. So, once again, he was left disappointed, and once again he assumed the worst of his negotiating partners. He surmised that there were simply too many extreme Tea Party Republicans who were prepared to breach the debt ceiling, and that Boehner lacked control of his caucus. Again, a basic understanding of Republican history would have corrected this notion. Like Newt Gingrich and Denny Hastert before him, Boehner is responsible to a majority of the Republican caucus, which for generations has opposed the kinds of rate increases that $1.2 trillion in new revenue would have required.

Not only did Obama fail to listen during the debt ceiling struggle, he consistently sent the other side mixed messages. A case in point: Obama’s demagogic April 2011 speech blasted Paul Ryan’s budget as “leaving seniors at the mercy of the insurance industry” and abandoning “the fundamental commitment this country has kept for generations.” In private, however, Obama had praised Ryan for offering a serious proposal and emphasized that both sides had to avoid scaring the elderly for political points. Worse, he had held a bipartisan summit that very day to encourage the two sides to come together on a plan.



Obama’s problems communicating with Congress are not limited to the right side of the aisle. Although Democrats need not worry about White House demagoguery or fret that Obama fails to understand their concerns, he has nevertheless done a poor job of engaging them in dialogue. In particular, the White House has often cut congressional Democrats out of the loop, inhibiting interbranch coordination and angering leaders by what they feel is trampling on their institutional rights.

Indeed, the president’s signature achievement—Obamacare—almost did not happen because of this. The process by which the health care bill was written was chaotic, to say the least. At one point five bills were circulating on Capitol Hill, three in the House and two in the Senate. Each differed, sometimes dramatically, in how to expand coverage and how to pay for it. And yet the White House did virtually nothing in 2009 to coordinate these efforts.

In fact, White House aides privately thought the final House bill was a liberal fantasy, and they had worked out a deal with medical providers that did not include the so-called public option. Yet the president never came out against that proposal, or any other, for that matter. After multiple calls over the summer of 2009 for President Obama to set some ground rules on what he expected, he gave a speech in early September that, though his aides promised specificity, was once again vague.

Finally, in early January, when the two chambers had passed their bills and it came time to work out the finer points, President Obama actually stormed out of a meeting after Nancy Pelosi tartly expressed her frustration with his lack of leadership. It was left to Emanuel to finish the negotiations. Worse, the needless delays due to the lack of presidential leadership sapped public support for the reform effort, led to Scott Brown’s victory in the Senate race in Massachusetts that January, and eventually forced Democrats to pass a gratuitously slipshod and ill-conceived bill that otherwise never would have become law.

After the 2010 midterms, House Democrats lost their majority, but not all of their clout. It would have been virtually impossible for Boehner to pass a compromise debt ceiling plan through the House in 2011 without at least some Democratic support, so it was appropriate for Pelosi and her leadership team to be kept in the loop. For a while, they were, but as Boehner and Obama approached a grand bargain, House Democrats were excluded.

Amazingly, so was Harry Reid. Any deal would obviously have to bear the imprimatur of the Senate majority leader, yet he was cut out of the final talks. It was only after the New York Times scooped the Boehner-Obama grand bargain that the White House brought Senate Democrats into the loop. Unsurprisingly, they were apoplectic, believing that the deal extracted too little from the congressional GOP, and feeling that they had been ignored. In fact, it was the outrage of the Senate Democrats that prompted the White House to go back to Boehner at the last minute to ask for more tax revenue, scuttling the big deal once and for all.

All of these stories point in the same direction: This president does not have a solid congressional outreach program, does not have a steady grasp of the expectations of legislators in either party, and does a notably poor job of communicating to them what he expects. Thus, a drifting and listless policy process, finally given direction by some power player outside the White House, often acting to avert imminent disaster, has marked almost every major deal during his tenure.

 There is little reason to expect anything different in the next four years. In the end, President Obama simply does not spend enough time talking to members of Congress. He is too aloof, and most accounts suggest he dislikes the seemingly petty, parochial nature of Capitol Hill.

In an interview with journalist Ron Suskind, President Obama articulated what he believes to be the core of a president’s job, and what he learned from the troubles of his first term: 


The reason people put me in this office is people felt that I had connected our current predicaments with the broader arc of American history and where we might go as a diverse and forward-looking nation. And that narrative thread we just lost, in the day-to-day problem solving that was going on. .  .  . What the president can do, that nobody else can do, is tell a story to the American people about where we are and where we need to go.

While this statement would surely make the republicans of the founding generation turn over in their graves, it does encapsulate the job of the modern president, but only in part. Yes, he is to stand, almost godlike, above the political process and tell a story, but the modern presidential deity is not in line with the watchmaker God of the 18th-century rationalists. It is not enough to put the pieces in motion, then stand back. Instead, a president must be more like the God of the Old and New Testaments, above the world and sovereign over it, but also intimately involved in it, guiding, encouraging, cajoling, and threatening people to make the right choices.

The ideal modern president, to borrow a phrase from Theodore Roosevelt, is one “actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood.” President Obama does not much care for the arena, and his successes came despite this distaste, not because of it. In fact, Nancy Pelosi probably deserves most of the credit for the legislative victories of 2009-2010. She functioned as a de facto prime minister, with her eyes always on big, national projects while she dealt with the provincial concerns of this committee chair or that subcommittee member. She, not Obama, was the one “in the arena.”

What this means is that major breakthroughs on legislation in the next four years are likely to depend on political actors outside the White House. Pelosi’s power is only a fraction of what it was, but policy success will still depend on congressional entrepreneurs as long as the White House remains disengaged. Thus, a whole host of issues will likely go unaddressed, above all, the looming entitlement crisis. One issue that could see movement is immigration reform, a topic of discussion where there is overlap between the parties and there are potential leaders in Congress, like Marco Rubio, who could help in whipping his party and negotiating a compromise with the other side.

But little such progress will be due to President Obama. It is highly unlikely that he will act as the collective bargainer Neustadt envisioned. He will not be the one to help hammer out policy differences between Senate Democrats and House Republicans, such as illegal immigrants’ status under Obamacare, or help the appropriators find the money needed for enforcement, or create a political space where both parties can declare victory.

Sure enough, last week’s campaign-style speech in Las Vegas on immigration reform was classic Obama. Not only did it do nothing to advance the ball on the sensitive negotiations in Congress, but the president demanded immediate amnesty, something to which Republicans will never agree. He also said he would “insist” that Congress vote on his proposal if it did not act in a timely fashion.

That captures Obama’s problem in a nutshell. “Insisting” that Congress do something is a good way to make sure nothing happens. Instead, as Harry Truman once said, the president must spend his time “flattering, kissing, and kicking people to get them to do what they are supposed to do anyway.” Barack Obama does not do this. He thinks it beneath him. After four years in office, he still fails to grasp the essence of modern presidential power.

Jay Cost is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard.

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