On March 6, Barack Obama invited a dozen Republican senators to dine with him at the Jefferson Hotel in Washington. The group spent virtually all of their time discussing debt, deficits, and spending. Obama picked up the tab. The next day, he hosted House Budget chairman Paul Ryan, along with his Democratic counterpart, for a lunch of grilled sea bass and roasted vegetable ragu and more discussion. This week, Obama will travel to Capitol Hill for meetings with Republicans in both chambers of Congress. All of this on top of personal phone calls he made to Republican lawmakers he thinks could be open to working with the White House.
What’s going on here?
Is a president who defends activist government at every turn and has added $6 trillion to the national debt in four years suddenly interested in an open and honest discussion of fiscal restraint? Is a president who until very recently boasted about his willingness and ability to go around congressional Republicans, and traveled the country proving it, suddenly eager to engage them?
Theoretically, the answer to both questions might be yes, just as, theoretically, I could win my age group in the Ironman Kona next year. But believing that Obama is sincere requires accepting that he now believes in a means he’s largely rejected (bipartisanship) towards an end he doesn’t seem to want (reducing the debt).
Here’s another possibility: The White House screwed up the sequester fight, the president’s approval ratings are dropping, heretofore-friendly reporters are criticizing his failure to lead, and, while Obama remains relatively unconcerned about debt and deficits, he recognizes the political utility of reaching out to Republicans now in order to demonize them once again in the months leading up to the 2014 midterm elections. In short, it’s a setup.
This is a cynical view, to be sure, but there’s good reason to believe it’s the correct one.
First, there is little evidence Barack Obama wants to cut spending or reform the entitlements driving our debt. He promised shortly before his inauguration that entitlement reform would be “central” to his efforts to reduce the deficit. It hasn’t been. Obama’s budget proposals have largely ignored entitlements. After his own debt commission offered a specific reform blueprint, the president refused to embrace it. In the summer of 2011, when reporters pressed White House press secretary Jay Carney for an actual plan from the administration, he said, with evident frustration: “You need it written down?” Last year, in an exchange on the subject with Paul Ryan, former Treasury secretary Tim Geithner criticized Ryan’s entitlement reform proposals and acknowledged that the Obama administration didn’t have any of their own. “You are right to say we’re not coming here to say we have a definitive solution to that long-term problem. What we know is we don’t like yours.” In an interview last July with National Journal, former top Obama adviser David Axelrod was asked to outline the president’s priorities in a second term. He listed six separate issues but said nothing about debt and deficits. When David Letterman asked Obama about the debt in an interview six weeks before the election, Obama acknowledged it was a potential problem down the road, but nonetheless told him, “We don’t have to worry about it short term.” In fiscal cliff negotiations with House Republicans after his reelection, Obama told House speaker John Boehner that the United States doesn’t “have a spending problem.” Not exactly a profile in courage on debt and spending issues.
Second, there is little reason to believe Obama sees bipartisanship as the way to secure his legacy. Four days before the president hosted the dinner for GOP senators, the Washington Post laid out the details of his second-term strategy. “The goal is to flip the Republican-held House back to Democratic control, allowing Obama to push forward with a progressive agenda on gun control, immigration, climate change and the economy during his final two years in office.” The president set his plan in motion on the day he was reelected. “After delivering his election victory speech in November, Obama walked off the Chicago stage and made two phone calls related to his political plans,” one of them to Steve Israel, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, charged with electing Democrats to the House, and the other to Nancy Pelosi. The president’s plan depends on his ability once again to cast congressional Republicans as villains. Obama, according to the Post, intends “to articulate for the American electorate his own feelings—an exasperation with an opposition party that blocks even the most politically popular elements of his agenda.”
What the White House didn’t count on, suffused as it was with postelection hubris, was that the public might be skeptical of its claims of sequester chaos. In his press conference with first responders on February 19, Obama described something close to a Hobbesian state of nature if discretionary spending were cut 5.3 percent. Prosecutors, he claimed, would have to “let criminals go.” Others claimed that teachers would be fired, seniors would go hungry, children would go unvaccinated. Those claims were proven to be exaggerated or simply untrue.
This was too much even for the Obama-friendly press corps, who recognized that the president’s history on the sequester had been an exercise in bad faith. Obama, after all, (1) proposed the sequester, (2) threatened to veto any attempt to avoid it, (3) ignored warnings about its consequences for months, (4) promised it wouldn’t happen, (5) pledged to pay legal fees of federal employees if it did, (6) complained he had too little flexibility, (7) rejected Republican efforts to give him more flexibility, and then, finally, (8) predicted calamity once the cuts he’d championed went through.
The White House recognizes that the fight over the sequester is about much more than the immediate reduction in the growth of federal spending. In some respects, it’s about the central rationale of the Obama presidency—that government is a force for good in the lives of Americans, not just necessary but constructive and even benevolent. Think back to the Obama campaign’s “Julia,” a fictional single woman who was aided by a caring and compassionate government at every stage of her life. The president’s argument over the past two months is that the government is so important it cannot be trimmed even a little. On the contrary, from universal pre-K to more green energy to new medical research, it ought to be doing things tomorrow that it’s not doing today.
So it’s fair to ask: Why should Republicans trust a man whose second Inaugural Address was a clarion call to greater government activism, whose State of the Union the New York Times described as a case for “closing out the politics of austerity,” who has previously demonstrated bad faith by fighting even modest reductions in spending growth, and whose second-term strategy so far has depended on casting Republicans as villains?
Republicans ought to proceed with caution.