The Presidential Balancing Act

How can Obama cut a deal with Republicans on immigration while at the same time beating them up over the budget?

President Barack Obama talks on the phone in the Oval Office, Feb. 13, 2012
President Barack Obama talks on the phone in the Oval Office, Feb. 13, 2012

Photo by Pete Souza/The White House

President Obama made two phone calls to Republicans in Congress this week. One was phony and one was real. The difference between the two calls underscores the challenge for his second term: How do you work with Republicans while you are simultaneously making yourself more loathsome to them? The preliminary answer seems to be by modulating your aggression. The president is betting part of his presidency on picking budget fights with Republicans, while resting most of his legacy on avoiding confrontation when it comes to passing immigration reform. Will it work? Getting this balance right will determine whether the president’s second term will be a success or a smoldering coda. It might also tell us something about leadership in a time of political sclerosis.

Let’s start with the phony call. On Thursday, President Obama called House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell. The subject was the sequester, the across-the-board spending cuts set to kick in March 1. Administration aides privately concede that the calls were largely for show. The president wanted it to appear as though he was making an effort to avoid the cuts. If the cuts happen and the public looks to blame someone, the president can say he tried to reach out. This strategy achieved a rare level of bipartisan agreement in Washington. According to GOP aides, their bosses received the calls in the spirit in which they were dialed—as empty public relations moves that did nothing to avert the cuts. 

The president and his aides think they have the upper hand politically. They point to the numbers. In a recent PEW poll, even a majority of Republicans support the president’s call for a mix of spending reductions and tax increases. In the Bloomberg poll, the president’s approval rating (55 percent) was 20 points higher than that of the Republican Party (35 percent). With the public on his side, the president will continue to use his office to highlight that Republicans are opposing a popular way forward. And why not, it’s worked twice already. The president’s new, less compromising approach led to agreement with Republicans  over the fiscal cliff and the debt limit. 

Congressional Republicans have a number of reasons to resist the pressure. The latest, explained to me last night by one GOP aide, is that their poll numbers won’t get any better with an agreement. The public won’t suddenly start loving Republicans because they agreed to a deal to fund the government, a task most people think is part of their job anyway. The president learned this lesson last summer after he cemented an agreement with Republicans to keep the government open. No one gives you credit for deciding not to slam your hand in the door.

The clash is driven by principle: Republicans think Washington has a spending problem and any solution based on higher taxes is misplaced. They can elide this point to scrape together a short-term agreement, as they did during the debt limit struggle, but the fundamental philosophical disagreement remains. So, many Republicans believe they might as well have the fight now. Plus, the base would lose it if Republicans caved to the president. Conservatives already think congressional Republicans were defeated on the fights over the fiscal cliff and the debt limit. This would be a third surrender. 

Is the president’s hard line a failure of leadership? Republicans say yes. John Boehner’s aides have been sending reporters copies of stories chronicling president Obama’s lack of congressional outreach. If outreach is a sign of leadership and the president isn’t doing that, then it follows that he’s the one to blame for this sequester mess. Of course, the White House says it doesn’t have a willing partner, so they think the old model of “reasoning together” is less effective than simply making Republicans cry uncle. But they understand the importance of appearances. That is what inspired the president’s speed dialing. The president has to look like he’s trying so he can’t be tagged for not leading. 

But is there any merit to the charge? Is the president failing to lead? That depends on your definition. George Bush defined leadership as taking tough stances and holding to them no matter what. In an interview, he actually said the howls of protest from the opposition defined just how much he was leading. President Obama is taking a hard-line stance based on his philosophical view about how you grow government. He’s not wavering. It’s the same attitude Republicans have toward taxes. 

The president is not always turning up the pressure. This gets us to the second phone call. Last weekend a draft of the president’s immigration legislation had leaked. Republicans were immediately suspicious. The president had publicly said he wanted Congress to take up this task, but the leaked document suggested he was either hatching his own plan to circumvent negotiations or trying to influence the existing plan by leaking to the press. No one can blame Republicans for reacting this way, particularly in these partisan times. The president is busy raising the pressure on Republicans in the sequester fight; why wouldn’t he do the same on immigration?

That is the difficulty of negotiating with a party on one issue while you’re battering them on another. So, the president called Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham, Marco Rubio, and John McCain to talk to them about immigration. According to White House aides, the call was not primarily about exchanging substantive ideas. But unlike the calls on the sequester, the lack of substance didn’t mean the call was pure theater. The president was calling to explain to the suspicious Republicans that he wasn’t trying to sabotage the bipartisan efforts to reform immigration.

Republicans have asked Obama not to meddle on immigration. He’s supposed to stay out of the way and be a follower. The reason is that the more he is associated with the legislation, the less likely Republicans will vote for it. On the sequester, Republicans define presidential leadership as reaching out to Congress. But when it comes to immigration reform, they are asking the president to show leadership by keeping his distance.

So far the president has taken his cue and has eased off on the pressure. Every indication for the moment is that he wants an immigration deal and he knows that, unlike with the budget, aggression is less helpful than compromise. Why is there a difference? The election inspired some Republicans to loosen their position on immigration reform. It did not shake their feelings about the desirability of tax increases.

When the president spoke about immigration reform in Las Vegas in late January, he was specific about the details he wanted to see in any final legislation. That rankled Republicans in Congress who thought he was meddling in the legislation they were carefully trying to craft. A little more than a week later, when the president talked about the issue in his State of the Union address, he was less specific. Republicans trying to cobble together a deal were grateful. They saw it as a dialing down of presidential pressure. That was their view, at least, until the leak last weekend. 

In the end, the leaked White House draft may help close an immigration deal. Sen. Rubio attacked it the minute the details hit the Internet. Some conservatives are suspicious of Rubio’s efforts to reach a compromise with Democrats. Bashing the president’s plan let the freshman from Florida show he’s still fighting for conservative principles, which in this case means stricter enforcement against new illegal immigrants before granting amnesty for existing lawbreakers. White House aides say that wasn’t the plan—they wanted to keep the details of the president’s plan secret—but they’re happy to let the leak play that role. With the president so regularly antagonizing the GOP, White House aides recognize that any deal with Republicans might require giving those same Republicans some opportunities to show how much they disagree with the man they’re eventually going to agree with.