Golf and banter won’t suffice for Boehner, Obama relationship

The relationship between soon-to-be-Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and President Obama will change dramatically over the coming weeks and months.

While it is unclear whether it will be a productive relationship, it is certain that the men will engage in the kind of detailed policy discussions that didn’t happen in the 111th Congress. 

Obama repeatedly attacked Boehner on the campaign trail this year, mocking his claim that passing Wall Street reform was akin to “killing an ant with a nuclear weapon.”

Boehner criticized the president a lot this fall, but the White House in September homed in on the 10-term lawmaker in its effort to keep the House in Democratic hands. 

The administration attempted to portray Boehner as a Washington insider who enjoys the comforts of country clubs. Some Democrats, however, said the strategy was a waste of time because most Americans are not familiar with the minority leader.

Over the weekend, Obama upped the ante by saying Boehner and his Republican colleagues were “cocky” about the election.

If they were, the results showed they had reason to be. 

Boehner is expected to be sworn in as Speaker in January after House Republicans trumped the gains they made in the historic 1994 election. 

Obama and Boehner share a fondness for golf and cigarettes, but beyond frequent verbal broadsides and the occasional lighthearted quip, the two have never really connected, according to allies of the Republican leader.

For example, during the annual St. Patrick’s Day lunch on Capitol Hill, Obama and Boehner shared a playful moment in which each suggested the other wasn’t cooperating in good faith. 

“I was laughing and pointing back at him,” Boehner said at the time.

Obama has joked about Boehner’s famous tan, quipping that the GOP leader was “a person of color.” 

Boehner has said their Oval Office chit-chat is mostly focused on golf, a sport that the Ohio Republican is better at than the president.

“First thing that happens is, you know, I come in and he’ll say, ‘Boehner, you’re almost as dark as me,’ ” Boehner told Fox News host Sean Hannity last month. “You know, I listen. We talk about golf. We’ll talk about our skin color.”

“There’s no animosity, but there’s not much of a personal relationship or a working relationship,” Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said on Wednesday.

In an interview with The Hill earlier this year, Boehner displayed his patented shoulder roll as he said, “I get along with the president fine.”

Republicans have long complained that Obama never made a genuine effort to reach out to party leaders like Boehner and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), apart from occasional bipartisan meetings that they said were largely for show. 

While it’s a gripe that fits neatly into the GOP characterization of an arrogant White House that ignored political opposition, the perception now carries consequences in a new power structure that depends on a partnership between the president and the incoming Speaker. 

Some believe there was some damage done during the campaign season.

“I think there’s some repairing to do,” said Rich Galen, a longtime adviser to former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). “It’s Obama’s great luck that Boehner’s just not a very vindictive guy.”

Obama placed a call to Boehner, along with McConnell and other congressional leaders, after the election results were clear. The president gave a perfunctory description of their conversation at his Wednesday press conference, saying he told Boehner he looked forward to working with him and wanted to meet soon.

Boehner, who turns 61 on Nov. 17, said the two “had a very pleasant conversation.”

“We agreed that we needed to listen to the American people, we needed to work together on behalf of the American people,” the putative Speaker told reporters at the Capitol. “I look forward to having the opportunity to talk with him about those areas where we can move together.”

Boehner struck a different tone on election night, saying voters had sent Obama an “unmistakable message” to “change course.”

“We hope President Obama will now respect the will of the people, change course and commit to making the changes they are demanding,” Boehner told cheering supporters. “To the extent he is willing to do this, we are ready to work with him.

“But make no mistake,” he added, “the president will find in our new majority the voice of the American people as they’ve expressed it tonight: standing on principle, checking Washington’s power and leading the drive for a smaller, less costly and more accountable government.”

The White House and Boehner will clash on many issues, most notably healthcare reform. It is highly likely that Boehner will attempt to push a healthcare repeal bill through the House. Such a bill, in all likelihood, would attract the support of every House Republican and perhaps a few Democrats. But barring something unforeseen, such a measure would not make it out of the Senate. 

Whether Obama and Boehner can work effectively together will depend on a variety of factors, some purely political. 

Boehner will be leading a larger, and potentially more unwieldy, Republican Conference that will include some lawmakers who campaigned stridently against any cooperation with the White House. 

And Obama will begin plotting his reelection bid, weighing on one hand the benefits of trying to strike deals with the new Republican majority — and potentially alienating the Democratic base — versus standing his ground and attacking the newly empowered GOP for obstructing his agenda.

Both men are going to have to be cognizant of their political bases, said John Feehery, a GOP consultant and former aide to then-Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.). Feehery is a contributor to The Hill’s Pundits Blog.

“I think they’ll be competing, rather than cutting a lot of deals,” Feehery said.

Yet there are policy areas that could provide fertile ground for bipartisan cooperation, which could benefit both leaders by demonstrating that a divided and highly polarized Congress can get things done.

At the top of the list is education and the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act — a law that Boehner helped craft as chairman of the House Education and Workforce Committee. Obama has won GOP praise for his education agenda, and he cited the issue as one where he thought he worked productively with Republicans.

The president and congressional Republicans could also find common ground on pending trade deals, which Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) all but ignored, and on reforming the earmark process. Both efforts, however, would attract some opposition within the House Republican Conference.

Of course, the road to bipartisan consensus must also go through the Senate, led by Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and a narrower Democratic majority.

Aides said that while Boehner and Reid see each other frequently at bicameral meetings, they have rarely met one on one in recent years and do not socialize.

Reelected in a hard-fought campaign of his own, Reid on Wednesday said he planned to call Boehner.

“We’ve had a longstanding good relationship. I’ve found him to be a consensus guy,” Reid said of the Ohio legislator.


Alexander Bolton contributed to this article.