By Niall Stanage and Amie Parnes - 01/06/13 11:00 AM EST
President Obama intends to take a confrontational approach with Republicans in future economic battles by using the same campaign-style events the White House saw as effective in the “fiscal-cliff” fight.
Sources close to Obama say he can fend off Republicans for several reasons: his successful reelection; polling suggesting public support for many of his positions; and division among Republicans on Capitol Hill.
Jen Psaki, who served as a press secretary during both of Obama’s presidential campaigns, said that the biggest lesson the president learned from his first term was “the power of the American people” and “the importance of having the will of the American people behind you.”
In practical terms, “that means taking the argument on the road, taking the time, as he did before the fiscal-cliff deal, to explain the stakes... and to use real-world examples of how certain fights impact the middle class,” she added.
Yet there are risks to the approach as well. A Jan. 31 rally Obama held at the White House during which supporters cheered the president on as he scolded Republicans angered the GOP just as sensitive talks with senators were taking place. Republican senators warned it could cost the president votes, though in the end it appeared it did not.
Obama’s supporters want him to press his case forcefully. The left criticized the president during his first term, saying the prodigious organization that had been built up during his 2008 campaign was harnessed only sporadically, if at all, when it came to governing.
Team Obama’s desire to keep the campaign infrastructure alive and vibrant was evident last week, when 2012 campaign manager Jim Messina sent out an email blast to supporters with a video of the president talking about the merits of the fiscal-cliff deal.
But any sense of triumphalism over Republicans could spark a backlash in Congress and erode Obama’s image among centrist voters as someone committed to forging bipartisan consensus.
Republicans have long argued that the idea of Obama-as-conciliator is a self-serving fiction put forth by the White House. In recent days, The Wall Street Journal has run two op-eds by prominent conservatives — Fred Barnes and Peggy Noonan— insisting that Obama talks the talk but does not walk the walk when it comes to bipartisanship.
“At Mr. Obama’s campfire, he gets to sing ‘Kumbaya’ solo while others nod to the beat,” Noonan wrote.
The president’s aides firmly deny the characterization.
“The president has demonstrated repeatedly his willingness to find common ground,” one senior administration official said. “He’ll continue to do that, I’m sure. The negotiating positions he takes are in the best interests of the middle class. That will continue to be his North Star.”
Obama aides justify his refusal to negotiate over raising the debt ceiling in a similar fashion. The president has twice in the last week issued unambiguous statements asserting that Congress needs to do what is required to increase the national debt limit, without any quid pro quo attached.
At a brief White House press conference after the fiscal-cliff accord was reached, Obama said: “I will not have another debate with this Congress over whether or not they should pay the bills that they’ve already racked up through the laws that they passed. Let me repeat: We can’t not pay bills that we’ve already incurred.”
In his weekly address, recorded in Hawaii and released on Saturday, he made a similar statement, warning against the “dangerous game” of Congress declining to raise the ceiling until the last moment, as happened in the summer of 2011.
“The last time Congress threatened this course of action, our entire economy suffered for it,” he said.
Obama aides insist that this is not political posturing. One administration official said the president will “definitely not” come to the negotiating table. “Full stop,” the official emphasized.
Republicans argue that the president might have little choice, however, lest the public blame him for intransigence.
They also argue that other Obama priorities, notably immigration reform, are achievable, but only if Republicans can be persuaded of their merits.
Asked if the most recent negotiations had poisoned the well around the Capitol, GOP strategist Dan Judy replied, “I think the well was poisoned long before the fiscal-cliff fight. There has been a lot of poison dumped in that well, most notably Obamacare.”
“I think that is really too bad, because there is an opportunity for bipartisan consensus on a lot of these things, especially immigration reform,” Judy added. “If the president really wants to bring along some Republicans on immigration reform, he can do it. But it is incumbent upon him to go to them wanting their help, not offering the kind of ‘my way or the highway’ approach we’ve seen before.”
Democratic strategist Jamal Simmons, however, made light of the idea that sharp, campaign-style rhetoric could by counter-productive.
“This ain’t nursery,” he said with a laugh. “The Republicans have been known to use fairly heated rhetoric themselves. When the Tea Party was out in front of the Capitol or turning up at Democrats’ town halls, the Republican Party was not upset by that level of political activity. That’s what you’re supposed to do.”
In terms of legislative realities, Simmons also noted that last week’s deal set a potentially useful precedent for Obama. Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) jettisoned his usual insistence that he would only bring forth legislation that could win the approval of most of his own conference.
“Boehner did not have to live by the rule of getting the majority of Republicans,” Simmons said. “Some of these big bills are things that are good for the country and he can get them passed with Democratic votes. This is a precedent for bills to be passed by a majority of the House rather than a majority of the majority.”
Still, the question about Obama’s willingness to make concessions is hotly disputed across the political divide.
Psaki insisted that the president had expressed an openness to reforming programs cherished by Democrats, including Social Security.
“He has reached out an olive branch and he’s shown he’s willing to make tough choices,” she said. But she added, “He’s also not going to cut programs that have a dramatic impact on the middle class.”
To Judy, the Republican strategist, Obama’s olive branches have always looked illusory, part of a sleight-of-hand in pursuit of political gain.
“I think his press conferences and campaign events are symptomatic of a larger disease, which is his unwillingness to strike a deal. If you talk to Republicans, it’s his inability to negotiate with them in good faith that is really what upsets them,” he said.
“The fundamental problem is that he’s not willing to make a deal.”