Empty charm offensive

Last week, it was bipartisan fine dining, optimism and hope for change. This week, forget about it. 

Sarah Palin and Donald Trump are swooping into town for the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), President Obama’s top donors have assembled for a high-priced meeting to learn how to “advance his agenda” and unseat GOP lawmakers through Organizing for Action, and both sides have issued budgets premised on policies that drive the other party up the wall. Is this really how you get to a grand bargain?

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Obama, just days ago, hosted dinner at D.C.’s Jefferson Hotel for a dozen Republicans critical to a fiscal deal who have demonstrated not only the most knowledge of the federal budget but a willingness to compromise. There he not only listened to their pleas but made his own about the timing and necessity for a deal. Then Wednesday morning, he told ABC News’s George Stephanopoulos that none of this is a big deal. “We don’t have an immediate crisis in terms of debt,” he said. “In fact, for the next 10 years, it’s gonna be in a sustainable place.” Really? Just ask anyone familiar with the trajectory for Medicare solvency.

Obama said in the interview that while he is willing to do “some tough stuff,” he made it clear that “ultimately it may be that the differences are just too wide.” He would reject, he said, GOP demands in exchange for new revenues that would “gut” Medicare, Social Security or Medicaid. “If that’s the position, then we’re probably not gonna be able to get to a deal.” 

So their four-star food has barely been digested, no one has held any serious meeting with numbers on the table and already Obama sounds as if negotiations have blown up once more. It’s enough to make burned-out voters even more cynical, and forget the earnest Republicans like Sens. Bob Corker, Lindsey Graham, Saxby Chambliss and others he would need to get any proposal to be taken seriously. It is stunning Obama is already so dismissive, given that Americans are souring rapidly on his second-term performance. The latest ABC News/Washington Post poll shows voters’ approval of President Obama has dropped 5 points since January and that his 18-point advantage over Republicans on who the public trusts more to manage the economy has dropped to just 4 points since December. 

The sole reason he made a reservation at The Jefferson Hotel, followed by lunch the next day with House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), was because Team Obama realized whatever mandate they thought his reelection produced has not budged Republicans, and the resulting gridlock is tarnishing him along with the GOP. Obama saw his approval sink in the polls after campaigning against the sequester, portraying the spending cuts as brutal though never engaging with Congress to cut a deal to replace them. And it’s likely another political stunt. National Journal reported that one senior White House official said of the new outreach, “this is a joke,” and added “I hope you all (in the media) are happy, because we’re doing it for you.” 

Senate Democrats spared the charm, writing a budget that raises $1 trillion in new taxes, which they know Republicans will never support. Ryan wrote the House Republican budget and premised the savings on a repeal of Obama’s healthcare reform law. That is known as a non-starter, but he called it “an invitation.” 

Perhaps when both sides put their budget press releases away next week they will remember that only a fiscal deal will end the permanent budget crisis the country has been locked in for nearly two years, and no amount of fake charm, invitations — or even presidential denial — can change that. 

Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.