1:44am

Sat September 28, 2013
It's All Politics

In Washington's Fiscal Tango, Obama's Lacking A Dance Partner

Originally published on Sat September 28, 2013 9:16 am

Top White House aides constantly refer to a "civil war" in the Republican Party.

They sometimes use the phrase with near delight, reveling in the tensions that threaten to pull apart the GOP. But for President Obama, the divided opposition creates a major problem: He has neither a partner to cut a deal with nor a high-profile adversary to vilify.

That situation stands in stark contrast to previous fiscal standoffs.

In the summer of 2011, Obama and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, spent long hours negotiating a deal to raise the debt ceiling in exchange for spending cuts. At the end of last year, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Vice President Biden swept in at the last second to avert the fiscal cliff.

Today, as another crisis unfolds, Democrats have nobody on the other side willing to dance with them.

"The problem is that the Republicans have no incentive to go to solutions," says Democratic consultant Jefrey Pollock. "They feel like any whiff of compromise means a Republican primary or a right-wing, Tea Party primary."

That's a lesson McConnell is learning, as a primary challenger back in Kentucky accuses him of being too comfortable with Washington's tried-and-true ways of doing business.

Republican strategist Rick Wilson says that shoves the potential for a deal out of the frame.

"Voters in his state, in his party, do not want him to play the Washington game of 'go along to get along' and 'let's make a deal' and all the usual ways it used to be done," Wilson says.

That instability within the Republican Party creates unexpected eddies of power and weakness. And Democrats used to cutting deals with the GOP can be left foundering.

"Voters think — you have the presidency; you have the Senate. Why can't you get something done?" says Democratic pollster Celinda Lake.

It might help if Obama could point at a single person to blame on the other side — identify a high-profile villain or an adversary to demonize.

"Successful presidents are defined in part by their enemies," says presidential historian Richard Norton Smith. "[For] Andrew Jackson, it was the Bank of the United States. [Theodore Roosevelt], it was the 'malefactors of wealth.' Ronald Reagan, it was the 'evil empire.' This president — it isn't that he has lacked for enemies. But I think he's been very reluctant to ... play that game."

During campaigns, Obama had no trouble playing that game. In 2012, he successfully portrayed Mitt Romney as the big bad wolf of capitalism. In 2010, he warned about the dire consequences of giving Republicans the keys to the car they had driven into a ditch. But Obama has run his last race, and now the White House is conspicuously holding back from obvious lines of attack.

During a White House briefing on the day that Sen. Ted Cruz ended his 21-hour Senate talkathon, White House spokesman Jay Carney repeatedly passed up chances to take a whack at the Republican from Texas.

"Did the president catch any of the 21 hours plus of the speech by Sen. Cruz?" Carney was asked.

"I don't believe so," he replied.

Then the follow-up: "Does the White House have any reaction to the speech? Did you watch it?"

"I did not. I certainly read about it," Carney said.

Variations on the Cruz question came up several times. In responding, Carney never even mentioned the senator's name.

Wilson, the Republican strategist, says that may be a smart decision.

"If he did get in a fight with a Ted Cruz or a Rand Paul, he boosts their stature. He boosts their image," Wilson says. "And, frankly, he fires up more Republicans."

But by taking a pass, Obama misses an opportunity to craft a simple narrative with a hero and a villain.

Through all of this, the president's poll numbers have been sinking. They're now at their lowest point in two years. Then again, when Obama was negotiating with Republicans in Congress two years ago, his numbers were even lower.

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Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

And at the White House, top aides are constantly referring to what they call a civil war in the Republican Party. And for President Obama, that conflict creates a problem. He doesn't have a partner to cut a deal with or a high-profile adversary that he can blame. NPR's Ari Shapiro reports.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: In the summer of 2011, Barack Obama and House Republican leader John Boehner spent long hours negotiating a deal to raise the debt ceiling in exchange for spending cuts. At the end of 2012, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell and Vice President Joe Biden swept in at the last second to avert the fiscal cliff. Today, yet another crisis is unfolding. But this time, Democrats have nobody on the other side willing to dance with them. Jef Pollock is a Democratic consultant.

JEF POLLOCK: The problem is that Republicans have no incentive to go to solutions because they feel like any whiff of compromise means a Republican primary or a right wing primary-Tea Party primary.

SHAPIRO: For example, Senator McConnell has a primary challenger in Kentucky this year. And Republican strategist Rick Wilson says that shoves the old Washington deal-making model out of the frame.

RICK WILSON: Voters in his state, in his party, do not want him to, you know, play the Washington game of go along to get along and let's make a deal and all the usual ways it used to be done.

SHAPIRO: That's a challenge for Republicans and for Democrats who want to work with them. It's especially bad for President Obama, says Democratic pollster Celinda Lake.

CELINDA LAKE: Voters think you have the presidency, you have the Senate; why can't you get something done?

SHAPIRO: It might help if President Obama could point at a single person to blame on the other side; identify a high-profile villain, an adversary to demonize. Richard Norton Smith is a presidential historian.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Successful presidents are defined in part by their enemies. I mean, Andrew Jackson, it was the Bank of the United States. T.R., it was the malefactors of wealth. Ronald Reagan, it was the evil empire. This president - it isn't that he has lacked for enemies, but I think he's been very reluctant to in effect play that game.

SHAPIRO: During campaigns, he's had no trouble playing that game. Obama successfully portrayed Mitt Romney as the big bad wolf of capitalism. And he used to warn about the dire consequences of giving Republicans the keys to the car after they've driven it into a ditch. But President Obama has run his last race. And now the White House is conspicuously holding back from obvious lines of attack. Just listen to how spokesman Jay Carney responds to this slow pitch softball about the 21-hour Senate talkathon by Tea Party hero Ted Cruz.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Did the president catch any of the 21 hours-plus of the speech by Senator Cruz?

JAY CARNEY: I don't believe so.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Does the White House have any reaction to the speech? Did you watch it or parts of it?

CARNEY: I did not. I certainly read about it. I, look, I...

SHAPIRO: Then Carney went on to talk about the cost of health coverage under the new law. He got variations on the Ted Cruz question several times. In responding, he never even mentioned the senator's name. Republican strategist Rick Wilson says that may be a smart decision.

WILSON: If he did get in a fight with a Ted Cruz or a Rand Paul, he boosts their stature, he boosts their image, and frankly he fires up more Republicans.

SHAPIRO: But by taking a pass, Obama misses an opportunity to craft a simple narrative with a hero and a villain. Through all of this, the president's poll numbers have been sinking. They are now at their lowest point in two years. Then again, when Obama was negotiating with Republicans in Congress two years ago, his numbers were even lower. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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