New Obama strategy: Take no prisoners

The first months of President Obama’s second term are being built around a simple premise: No caving.

From the sequester to immigration reform to the broader debate about the role of government in American life, Obama is in an ultra-assertive mood, practically daring Republicans to defy his wishes.

ADVERTISEMENT
It is a clear change for a president who, during his first term, faced criticism from his left flank for being too conciliatory toward the GOP on healthcare reform and, later, during deficit battles. Liberal voices argued that Obama was mistaken in thinking the Republicans had any real interest in finding common ground.

These days, however, GOP figures are deriding Obama’s approach as that of a “roadshow president,” as House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) recently called him.

Conservatives accuse Obama of being happier making airy claims and promises at campaign-style events than engaging in the nitty-gritty of governance. In particular, they suggest that his purported willingness to compromise to avert the sequester was vague at best and bogus at worst.


Democrats, on the other hand, argue that Obama is — finally — using the power of the bully pulpit to advance his agenda. Far from doing anything wrong, his supporters insist that Obama is merely becoming more adept at using public pressure to accomplish his political goals.

“I think he has learned from the intransigence of the Republicans that it takes two to compromise and that he’s not going to negotiate against himself,” a senior administration official told The Hill. “Both sides need to be willing to compromise. You can’t just keep moving unilaterally.”

It is all a far cry from the battles of the first term, when Obama was assailed by liberals for not pushing strongly enough for a public option in healthcare reform, agreeing to extend the Bush tax rates at the end of 2010 and, in 2011, accepting almost $1 trillion worth of spending cuts over ten years in return for GOP agreement to raise the debt ceiling.

Of late, perhaps liberated by his relatively comfortable reelection win, Obama’s attitude is more akin to that of a general leading his forces into battle, confident that he can decimate the enemy.

He defended social programs in combative terms during his inaugural address in January, saying that the various strands of the safety net “do not make us a nation of takers. They free us to take the risks that make this country great.”

More drily, he told a news conference Friday, in relation to the sequester, “I am not a dictator. I’m the president. So, ultimately, if Mitch McConnell or John Boehner say, ‘We need to go to catch a plane,’ I can’t have Secret Service block the doorway, right?”

A former White House aide stressed that there is continuity, as well as some changes, in the president’s approach.

“What you’re seeing is not an evolution of the president’s views,” the aide said. “There’s no change in this. What’s changing is the extent to which he’ll compromise on his views. He’s still a president that wants to get a deal done, but he’s not going to give away the store.”

In late 2010, then-Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) was one of the loudest voices in the liberal chorus of criticism. Before he himself was hit by scandal, Weiner said in a “Good Morning America” interview that Obama was acting more like “negotiator in chief” than the nation’s leader.

The president “has the ability to move the needle, and I don’t think this administration understands that,” Weiner added.


Voices on the left have now, for the most part, fallen into contended silence. In their stead, Republicans are protesting about Obama’s supposed triumphalism.

On the day after Obama’s second inaugural address, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) told a meeting of the centrist Ripon Society that he believed the administration’s goal is to “annihilate the Republican Party.”

Boehner continued: “Let me just tell you, I do believe that is their goal — to just shove us into the dustbin of history.”

A sure-footed Boehner crowed in 2011 that he got “98 percent” of what he wanted in the Budget Control Act. After major missteps during the fiscal-cliff episode, Boehner told his GOP conference that he was done negotiating one-on-one with the president.

While Obama’s overall approach at the card table is more aggressive, the president’s strategy can still differ quite markedly from hand to hand.

On the sequester, for instance, Obama did little more than pay lip-service to the idea of a last-minute compromise to avert the package of cuts. By the time he met with congressional leaders on Friday, any realistic hope of such a deal had expired. The meeting seemed like mere theater.

However, on immigration, the leak of details from a White House proposal first appeared to diminish the chances of progress. Obama quickly got immigration reform back on track by making phone calls to the leading Republicans on the issue, including Sens. John McCain (Ariz.), Lindsey Graham (S.C.) and Marco Rubio (Fla.). McCain and Graham were subsequently invited to a White House meeting last week. Afterward, Graham insisted that it was “one of the best meetings I ever had with the president.”

Tony Fratto, a former deputy press secretary for President George W. Bush, said that any evaluation of Obama’s second-term approach needs to acknowledge these nuances.

“I don’t think it’s some kind of second-term infusion of courage,” he said. “It’s very tactical in the way they deal with issues.”

Cal Jillson, a professor of political science at Southern Methodist University, offered a more generous analysis of Obama’s strategy.

“Where you can get Republican support, it makes no sense at all not to take it,” he said. “But if you can’t give them half a loaf and get a significant number of votes in return, then why give them half a loaf in the first place?”

Democratic strategist Doug Thornell, meanwhile, offered a simpler explanation for Obama’s approach: Time is short.

“He’s more than halfway through his presidency now, and it’s become apparent that Congress is totally dysfunctional,” he said. “And if he waits around for them to demonstrate leadership, we’ll be waiting forever.”

The president is once again, it seems, feeling the fierce urgency of now.