President Obama is increasingly looking to place personal blame for a possible government shutdown on Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio).
The White House on Wednesday upped the ante by accusing Boehner of failing as a leader, arguing he was presiding over a dysfunctional conference that threatened to throw the nation into economic chaos by moving the government closer to a shutdown.
The attacks on Boehner came one day after Obama personally called out Boehner on the subject of immigration reform, stating that if a bill failed to reach his desk, it would be because of the Speaker.
Targeting Boehner serves multiple purposes for the White House.
It establishes an early narrative that disarray within the GOP is to blame for a shutdown, insulating the president from criticism.
The White House also hopes to pressure Boehner into standing up to a fight with conservatives in his conference by raising the pressure.
On Wednesday, Obama took that tack to rip into Boehner, accusing him of attempting to “fundamentally change how American government functions.”
“Just flip the script for a second and imagine a situation in which a Democratic Speaker said to a Republican President, ‘I’m not going to increase the debt ceiling unless you increase corporate taxes by 20 percent,’” Obama told CEOs in a speech Wednesday at the Business Roundtable. “‘And if you don’t do it, we’ll default on the debt and cause a worldwide financial crisis.’”
The president also reiterated his criticism of Boehner on immigration reform, an issue on which CEOs generally side with the White House.
“The problem is right now that this town, Washington, is locked up ... immigration is the most obvious example,” Obama said. “We have bipartisan agreement; we got a bill passed out of the Senate. It’s sitting there in the House, and if Speaker Boehner called that bill today, it would pass.”
Indicting Boehner for congressional intransigence could also help rehabilitate the president’s sagging approval ratings. Obama’s job approval rating — 47 percent — is his lowest in more than a year, according to an ABC News poll released earlier this week.
But that’s leaps and bounds above the 11 percent congressional approval rating found in an Economist/YouGov poll earlier this month. And the president still holds a significant advantage on perceptions of leadership, with 54 percent of respondents in the ABC News poll seeing him as a strong leader.
“If the White House can seem commanding against a weakened and divided House, they’re more than happy to do it,” said Cal Jillson, a professor of political science at Southern Methodist University. “They’re not going to bargain the Affordable Care Act, and they’re basically telling Boehner to get over it. They obviously feel they’re going to win over public opinion.”
A senior administration official said Obama’s messaging isn’t about making the White House look “strong or weak,” but rather to emphasize that Boehner is holding up key legislation.
“If [Boehner] would put the immigration bill in front of the House chamber, it would pass; if would he put the Senate budget in front of the chamber, it would pass, but he refuses to do that,” the official said. “And these are pieces of legislation that are supported by large majorities.”
“There’s stuff that is supported by the president, passed by the Senate, and he’s sitting on it in the House,” the official added. “We’re making that known.”
To some extent, the strategy recalls the budget battles of the 1990s, when Democrats played up complaints by then-Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) about where he sat on Air Force One to paint him as responsible for the shutdown.
But unlike Gingrich, Jillson said, Boehner doesn’t have the same control of his caucus to drive negotiations.
“Boehner would like to be reasonable. He’s a Midwestern Republican. He’s not a Tea Party guy at heart,” he said. “But he has not been able to be that guy because he has a part of his caucus that is in Washington to take the place apart and make dramatic changes.”
Behind closed doors, Boehner made it clear on Wednesday he’s not worried about the criticism, whether it comes from Obama or his own conference.
“People say a lot of things about me,” Boehner told GOP lawmakers at their meeting Wednesday, according to two people who attended. “People outside this room. People inside this room. I just let that s--- roll off my back.”
Russell Berman contributed to this story.