President Obama’s outreach to congressional Republicans isn’t a minor tactical shift. It’s a course correction. Five days after denouncing Republicans as tools of “the well-off and well-connected,” he had dinner at the swanky Jefferson Hotel in Washington with a dozen GOP senators. Not only had Obama invited them, but he paid the bill. The next day, he hosted Paul Ryan, the Republican chairman of the House Budget Committee, for lunch at the White House.
Obama doesn’t go out of his way to socialize with Republicans. He avoids them. So why would he engage them so vigorously now? Simple. He is slipping politically. His overwrought claims about the effect of the sequester backfired. In little more than a week, his presidential job approval fell dangerously below 50 percent, dipping to 43 percent in one poll. His focus on winning control of the House in the 2014 midterm election stamped him as a partisan president of half the people. Even the normally pliant press corps is increasingly critical.
That Obama acted swiftly, with troubles mounting, reflects his acute political sensitivity. He understands he has much to gain from togetherness with Republicans. His poll numbers are likely to rise (independents love bipartisanship). The media can probably be counted on to jump on his bandwagon again. And he’ll have an excuse should a grand bargain fail to materialize. It’s all the fault of Republicans, he’ll say. They rejected a reasonable offer—Obama’s proposals are always “reasonable”—and thwarted his efforts to spur the economy and trim the deficit. In the unlikely event a bipartisan deal emerges, that’s fine too. Obama will get most of the credit.
Might his new approach represent a sincere change of heart? No. It’s a change of political strategy. Besides, sincerity isn’t Obama’s strong suit. Nor is negotiating with Republicans. They’ve learned to distrust him. He spurned compromise in his first two years when he didn’t need their votes and single-handedly blew up a potential agreement on spending and taxes in the second two years. Yet he blamed Republicans for reflexively obstructing his agenda and the press bought his story.
Many Republicans on Capitol Hill are still mad, and those who aren’t should be. Before negotiating with the president or his congressional surrogates, Republicans will need to be certain he isn’t setting them up to be blamed again and targeted as the rejectionist “party of no” in 2014. Republicans should reverse Reagan’s practice in dealing with the Soviets. Rather than trust, but verify, with Obama they should verify, then trust.
Senator Tom Coburn, an attendee at the dinner and an occasional ally when Obama was in the Senate, says the president has considerable work to do to ease Republican distrust. “If you’d had years of having somebody put their finger in your eye and question your motivations and ascribe to you things that aren’t accurate, that takes some healing,” the Oklahoma Republican told MSNBC’s Morning Joe.
The first test of Obama’s sudden commitment to compromise is whether he halts his attacks on Republicans. As recently as his March 1 press conference, he said Republicans believe preserving tax cuts for the rich is “more important than protecting our military or our middle-class families from the pain” of the spending cuts mandated by the sequester.
Obama often acts as if his way is the only way and Republican ideas aren’t worth considering. He said as much about his tax-heavy alternative to the sequester. It wasn’t partisan, he said. “It’s the kind of approach I’ve proposed for two years. It’s what I ran on last year. And the majority of the American people agree with me.” Unlike Republicans, he was trying to do “the right thing.”
Senator Roy Blunt, who wasn’t invited to the dinner, says Obama missed the best opportunity for meeting with Republicans in the days after his reelection. Instead, the Missouri Republican says, the president devoted speech after speech to excoriating them, rather than “getting as much out of the way as he could” before the deadlines (fiscal cliff, sequester, spending resolution) took priority.
Next, Obama will have to change his tune on tax reform as a vehicle for a big tax increase. As he doubtless knows, this conflicts with what has become a Republican principle: Tax reform must be revenue neutral, its proceeds used to lower tax rates.
But as recently as last week, White House aides told the Washington Post that $600 billion could be generated through tax reform by eliminating special interest tax breaks and preferences. This windfall would come on top of what Republicans calculate is $1.6 trillion in tax hikes this year due to Obamacare and the fiscal cliff deal.
Obama, however, does have a case for a $76 billion boost in taxes from tax reform. That would be raised by erasing tax credits for GE, Hollywood, and other corporate interests, credits the White House imposed as part of the fiscal cliff agreement. If Obama wants to use the $76 billion for deficit reduction, he’s entitled to.
The president must also give up a bad habit from past talks: walking away from things he’d agreed to. He reneged on increasing the age of eligibility for Medicare and slashing $100 billion from Medicaid, and he jettisoned his own plan for means-testing Medicare.
One more thing. The White House has endorsed a return to “regular order” in Congress. After refusing to draft a budget since 2009, much less pass one, the Senate Democrats have finally relented, and their budget is due to be released this week. Whatever his own budget, Obama should be prepared to advise Democrats to enact a Senate plan that’s a credible basis for compromise when they confer with Republicans.
This is important. Given their ideological inclinations, Senate Democrats favor tax hikes and spending cuts that won’t occur until the “out years,” 5 to 10 years from now. In an era of large deficits and a potential debt crisis, such a budget wouldn’t pass the smell test.
All this would be asking a lot of Obama, who may want a few guarantees from Republicans before negotiating. But it’s Obama who stepped forward to connect with Republicans. As president, he is obligated to lead. And for once, he might.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.