At his press conference last week, President Obama renewed his request for Republicans to negotiate a grand bargain with the White House on spending, taxes, and deficit reduction. Yet he knows Republican leaders in the House and Senate have already rejected the very idea of getting together with him for another round of talks. So what’s he up to?
The answer is gamesmanship. It’s what Obama, a clever politician, is especially good at. He’s learned from his first term that merely calling for negotiations works to his advantage. And on the off-chance Republicans agree to talks, so much the better. That would put him in an even more favorable position, and Republicans in an unfavorable one, whether the talks accomplish anything or not. For him, it’s a win either way.
This gambit does nothing to further a second-term agenda or enhance his presidency. In fact, Obama doesn’t have an agenda. He has an inbox. He takes up the issues that come his way—gun control, immigration reform, whatever.
His agenda awaits the 2014 midterm elections. If Democrats win the House and hold the Senate, Obama’s agenda will emerge: higher taxes, cap and trade, universal pre-K, a $9 minimum wage, and who knows what else.
For now, his chosen task is to soften up Republicans and make them as vulnerable as possible, while sparing himself any political embarrassment. Lessons from his first four years as president are his guide. One is that the lofty idea of a grand bargain can be exploited to the detriment of Republicans.
Another is that he doesn’t have to agonize over his economic policy. The election exit poll last November informed him of this. Yes, the economic growth rate is half that of a normal recovery, and high unemployment persists. But on the poll question of who would handle the economy best, he was roughly even with Mitt Romney. So the message was, “weak economy—no problem.”
The same is true for his policy of raising taxes on the rich. He’s free, politically speaking, to target “millionaires and billionaires,” though by that he means couples earning over $250,000. Republicans, quite correctly, accuse Obama of trying to intensify the redistribution of wealth from the affluent to those less well off. But Gallup is on Obama’s side. A poll in April found that 59 percent of Americans think wealth “should be more evenly distributed.” Only 33 percent feel distribution currently is “fair.”
Thus Obama was on safe ground at his press conference when he questioned Republicans’ motive in refusing to replace the sequester they had initially opposed. “When it was determined that doing something about it might mean that we close some tax loopholes for the wealthy and the well-connected,” he said, Republicans decided they’d rather “take the sequester.”
From last year’s campaign, Obama learned that accusing Republicans of waging a “war on women” is a tactic that works. It’s an absurd charge, but it proved to be attractive to a large voting bloc, single women. So the president appealed to them again last week in a speech to Planned Parenthood.
He asked the organization to “spread the word . . . particularly among young women” that under Obamacare “most insurance plans are now covering the cost of contraceptive care.” He added: “We need all the college students who come through your doors to call up their friends and post on Facebook talking about the protections and benefits that are kicking in.”
Obama identified the enemy. It’s “those who want to turn back the clock to policies more suited to the 1950s than the 21st century.” He was referring to opponents of abortion—that is, Republicans. But he never mentioned the “A” word. That’s verboten when referring to outfits like Planned Parenthood, though they actually perform hundreds of thousands of abortions every year.
There’s still another lesson Obama has put into practice: He can do things that other presidents could never get away with. His speeches and press conferences aren’t flyspecked for false or dubious statements (though the Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler did give him two Pinocchios for claiming at the press conference that “85 to 90 percent of Americans with health insurance” are already subject to Obamacare without repercussions).
It’s now routine for the president to announce he’ll try to achieve by executive order what Congress has refused to enact. He’s altered immigration and welfare laws this way. President George W. Bush would have been pilloried for this by the press and most of the political community. But Obama has faced little pushback, except briefly from congressional Republicans.
Instead, he’s often gigged by the media for small stuff like devoting too much time to golf and taking too many taxpayer-paid vacations. Obama seems unfazed. And there’s no reason to be upset, since he gets a pass on bigger things.
Giving up on a serious agenda over the next 18 months is little sacrifice for the president. He has practically no influence with Congress, and that includes Democrats. He’ll simply deal with what shows up in his inbox. If Congress passes immigration reform legislation, he’ll claim credit.
In the meantime, Obama can nick away at Republicans, tarring their reputation. A national Gallup poll in early April revealed that the biggest criticism of Republicans is that they’re “too inflexible” or “unwilling to compromise.”
That’s where Obama’s pursuit of a grand bargain comes in. When Republicans balk at talks, they’re inflexible and won’t compromise with the president. But if they negotiate, they’ll face a choice: either agree to a bad deal that divides Republicans or be accused of spurning a compromise.
Putting Republicans in this box is gamesmanship at its cleverest. But leadership it’s not. That’s for past and future presidents.