“Ronald Reagan wouldn’t be sitting here.” — President Obama during the debt-ceiling debate
Those words from the July debt-ceiling standoff offers perhaps the best glimpse into how the unknowable Obama thinks Congress sees him.
But when it comes to Obama, whether because of his race, his name or his politics, the perception that he is being treated differently from his predecessors seems to be the largely unspoken belief in the White House and among the president’s fiercest supporters.
And it’s a perception the White House will likely continue to mention, with a wink and a nod, after Republicans stand united in blocking Obama’s jobs bill.
During the debt-ceiling debate, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) said she was “particularly sensitive” to the fact that “only this president” has received the kind of attacks Obama has dealt with.
“I do not understand what I think is the maligning and maliciousness [targeting] this president,” she said. “Why is he different? And in my community, that is the question that we raise. In the minority community, that is the question that is being raised. Why is this president being treated so disrespectfully?”
Obama has evidence in arguing he has been treated differently. Raising the debt ceiling had long been a routine practice, a fact not lost on the White House. Of course, as a senator, Obama voted against raising the debt ceiling.
Since Obama has gone on the offensive with his quixotic American Jobs Act tour, he has repeatedly spoken of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) stated top priority of defeating the president.
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“I’m also dealing with a Republican … leader who said that his No. 1 goal was to beat me — not put Americans back to work, not grow the economy, not help small businesses expand, but to defeat me,” Obama said during last week’s press conference. “And he’s been saying that now for a couple of years.”
Inside the White House, senior administration officials refer to “the McConnell strategy,” which dictates that no matter what Obama proposes, Republicans will oppose it in hopes of making him a one-term president.
“You get the sense sometimes that if the president went out and said, ‘The sky is blue and the grass is green,’ they would find a way to object to that,” one top White House official said Tuesday.
For the moment, the suspicion that Obama has been treated differently is still below the surface. If it is mentioned at all, it is only in the heat of the moment by fellow Democrats or minorities.
If the president raises the subject, it is always in the context of portraying McConnell and his party as obstructionist.
But that will change. In the intense fire of next year’s campaign, every stone will be turned over, and the narrative that Obama has been treated differently by his political opponents could emerge as an issue.
The question then becomes: Is Obama a victim, or a professional victim? And what does it mean for Obama’s reelection hopes?
The answer is far from clear.
Washington has never tallied a scorecard for a black president, and the president’s reelection effort will in many ways be as unprecedented as his 2008 election.
It’s possible that those people inspired by hope and change in 2008 could come to his defense if they feel like Obama’s efforts, and by extension their own, were constantly undermined by a Congress that never viewed Obama as presidential or repeatedly undermined the economy in a grand effort to make Obama the next Jimmy Carter.
If black voters and other traditional supporters of the Democratic base hold that view, it could put an end to questions about whether Obama’s base will be there in 2012.
It’s also possible that if that view is embraced by the left, it could hurt Obama.
The left is viewed by swing-state independents as the same crowd as the Occupy Wall Street folks, and complaints Obama is being treated differently could lead voters in Peoria to see the president as a whiner trying to misdirect anger toward his ineffective policies by claiming to be a victim.
It’s not difficult to guess which view Republicans would endorse and push.
And it’s unlikely that the supremely cocksure president would ever publicly admit to feeling like he has been a victim of, well, a vast right-wing conspiracy.
But the grumblings are out there. They will grow in volume and frequency as Congress repeatedly clashes helmets in the coming months.
When a verdict on those questions is reached among voters, someone will be punished.
If Obama is punished for claiming victimhood, he loses.
But if Republicans are judged to have targeted Obama instead of the economy, they will pay the price.
Either way, it’s probably fair to say, Ronald Reagan wouldn’t be sitting in that position.
Youngman is the White House correspondent for The Hill.