The Corner

Message: I Care

It’s hard not to laugh just a little at President Obama’s wonderfully transparent attempts to counteract his image of aloofness and detachment by inviting members of Congress to dinner and lunch and going over to talk to them at the Capitol. The most remarkable thing about this charm offensive is, of course, that it is news that the president would call a senator from the opposite party or have lunch with the chairman of the House Budget Committee. It’s really a mark of the astonishing incompetence of this administration’s approach to Congress (and not just to congressional Republicans) that this should be a big story. It’s Obama’s fifth year in office, and he seems only now to have realized that—since he seems incapable of actually liking people who are not literally in the act of praising him—at least pretending to like them might get him somewhere.


The interesting question is just where he hopes it will get him, though. Much of the coverage of the president’s newly social mood has suggested rather vaguely that he hopes to communicate to Republicans that he wants a big budget deal and is willing to bargain. The White House seems to have persuaded itself (or been persuaded by some liberal opinion journalists making this case) that Republicans just simply don’t know that the president has offered to impose even tighter price controls in Medicare and to accept a change in how the CPI is calculated in return for another round of tax increases. But I think this Politico story about the president inviting Paul Ryan to lunch gets closer to the truth, noting:

By speaking directly with Ryan, Obama is hoping to enlist a powerful ally in convincing leadership to abandon its insistence on subjecting all future measures on the debt, deficit, taxes and entitlement reform to “regular order,” the tortuous committee process dominated by party conservatives, according to a person close to the process.

In other words, the president is worried that Congress is getting back to doing its job, rather than just pointlessly tangling with him all the time, and that this might leave him both less relevant and less powerful. I think he’s right, and right to be worried. It has been difficult to see through all the dust thrown up by the various ridiculous deadline-driven budget bouts, but the first few months of Obama’s second term have not gone very well for him. The Bush tax rates are now “permanent” for about 98 percent of the country and the automatic 2013 tax increase was kept about as small as it could have been, the growth of discretionary spending is being modestly restrained by the 2011 budget agreement and sequester and major new spending is almost unthinkable, there’s a continuing resolution coming soon that looks likely to ease the burdens placed on the Pentagon (at least) by the form of the sequester without increasing spending levels, and that CR will likely put off further 2013 budget fights at least well into the summer (when the debt ceiling will be reached again) and perhaps through the fiscal year to clear the deck for the 2014 budget fight—in which House Republicans will offer a budget that balances in ten years without raising taxes and Senate Democrats (proposing their first budget since 2009) seem likely to offer one that doesn’t balance yet does raise taxes. And all the while, the president has gotten nothing else accomplished and his approval ratings have dropped.


Now, obviously none of this amounts to much to be proud of for Republicans, except in light of the president’s absurdly hubristic attitude of the past few months. All the fights they’ve had have been about a small portion of only discretionary spending, the prospect of serious entitlement reform is not much nearer than it was, the party has not taken up an aggressive new policy agenda with middle-class appeal, and while keeping the other side from achieving its goals is an important aim of any minority party it is not a sufficient one. 


But if the past few months have not been hugely successful for Republicans, they have been a disaster for the president, whose power naturally diminishes with every passing day in this second term. And he seems to understand why: Republicans have decided to stop focusing on him and start using the leverage they have as the party in charge of one house of Congress—working with Senate Democrats to seek common ground where they can and forcing them to take uncomfortable votes where they can, while taking it for granted that the president will sign anything Congress sends him. That’s the promise of “regular order” for them, and it has some appeal for Senate Democrats too, since the president has offered no agenda for them to rally around and seems to have very little interest in their reelection prospects. 


All this seems like a recipe for presidential irrelevance, and Obama seems to be responding to that danger by putting himself back in the middle of the story. Being nice to people is always a good idea, but I think he’s going to find that the trouble he’s in is not the result of a shortage of lunch invitations.

Yuval Levin is the director of social, cultural, and constitutional studies at the American Enterprise Institute and the editor of National Affairs.


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