Meeting Expectations

President Obama and Republican leaders finally get in the same room.

President Obama delivers a statement to the media.

The president and Republican congressional leaders finally came together at the White House for their first meeting after the election. Afterwards, it was clear there was no thaw on the substantive disputes—they disagree even on what issues to discuss—but both sides tried to stay positive. “We had a very nice meeting today,” said incoming House Speaker John Boehner. President Obama heralded “a new dialogue.” It was dubbed the Slurpee Summit, and so it was: frozen and full of artificial coloring.

No one expected much from this meeting, but it did offer another opportunity to see how both the president and Republicans in Congress view the post-election landscape. GOP leaders think they have the upper hand and acted that way. Obama sees things differently. He either recognizes he’s in a weaker position or he’s playing for time. He either thinks he has to accommodate the other side through bipartisan gestures to get a deal or he is giving voters what he thinks they want: another show of public attempts at bipartisanship.

In the dull who-shot-John debate over whether it was the president or Republicans who killed any chance at bipartisanship in 2009, Republicans point to a single anecdote. The president, during a discussion about the stimulus bill with House Republican Whip Eric Cantor, said “I won.” GOP leaders repeat this anecdote as proof that Obama never really had an honest interest in working with the other side. He just wanted Cantor to agree with his position.

Now that Republicans have won back a share of power, it’s not clear what their complaint was about that meeting. Was it that Obama was being too political—that he never really wanted to cooperate at all? Or that he was being dishonest—that he said he would cooperate in public but then never did in private? The lesson they seem to have taken is the latter. Before GOP leaders met with the president, they sent a message: “We won,” though they said it in a few more words. Writing in the Washington Post, Boehner and Senate Minority Leader McConnell said that Republicans were coming to the meeting as representatives of the “message voters have been delivering for more than a year,” and that was delivered in the election. As for Democrats, they wrote: “The November elections represented a wholesale rejection of [their] policies.”

GOP leaders matched this posture after the meeting. When they recounted their discussion, they repeatedly mentioned that Obama had conceded to them that he had not tried hard enough to work with GOP leaders during his first term. “The president did make an important point,” said Boehner, “that he hadn’t spent much time with us, reaching out and talking to us, and [he] committed to do so.”

Given that the GOP leaders have been talking about how they hope to work with the president, you might have expected them to mention how they responded to Obama’s concession. In negotiations (and marriage counseling), when one side makes a low-level admission, the other side often matches it with their own little admission. I’m sorry I never listen. I didn’t really mean my first priority is to limit you to one term. Such admissions keep the tiny bubbles of goodwill afloat. The president said he had fallen short. At their press conference, GOP leaders matched him by saying “[crickets].”

In his remarks after the meeting, the president argued that the coming tax debate is a referendum on the GOP’s willingness to act in good faith. He said he thinks Republican Congressional leaders recognize the country is tired of partisan bickering and he was encouraged that they wanted to make a “sincere effort” to get something done. If they do, then there will be a deal. If not, then Obama hopes the GOP will look like it’s playing the “old Washington game,” as he put it.

The arc of Obama’s position on extending the Bush tax cuts seems to bend toward bending. If nothing is done and the tax cuts expire, as they were designed to, everyone’s taxes will go up. The president will get a larger share of the blame than the Republicans. He can’t have that. He’s got to have a deal. This is why the GOP isn’t breaking from its view that they will only accept an extension of all rates, or they’ll accept nothing at all. They’re confident they can do this because, as Mitch McConnell pointed out, the president doesn’t have the votes for his position on tax cuts in his own party. Obama thinks they should be extended only for the middle class. A few Democratic senators want to extend them to all income brackets.

The substantive news to come out of the meeting was that the White House and congressional leaders will name a negotiating team to hash out the details of a tax-cut deal.  The White House has sent the Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and OMB Director Jack Lew. House Democrats picked Rep. Chris Van Hollen, the incoming ranking member of the House Budget Committee. Senate Democrats picked Max Baucus, chairman of the Finance Committee. This should irritate liberals. They think Baucus ruined health care reform by working for months on a bipartisan deal on health care. He never got one, and during the negotiations, the forces of opposition battered the effort nearly beyond recognition.

Republicans chose a slightly tougher set of characters. Jon Kyl will represent the Republicans in the Senate. You may know him as the key Republican blocking movement on the president’s START treaty. In the House, Republicans named Dave Camp, the incoming chairman of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee. He has said Republicans are likely to go home for the year with everyone getting a tax increase than treat the extension of the tax rates differently.  

Since the election, the script of the interaction between both sides has been so predictable it makes your teeth hurt. Whose fault is this? Both sides are showing a failure of imagination. Obama offered an exciting, challenging vision of post-partisanship as a presidential candidate, but has never quite matched those expectations. Now it’s the Republicans’ turn to do something mildly close to changing the way things are done in Washington. But they don’t seem interested in doing anything risky. Perhaps their next set of press releases issued before a meeting in which both sides claim to be listening to the other should simply proclaim, “We look forward to accepting the president’s agreement with our position.”

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