The Story of Paul and Barack

Why Obama’s relationship with Paul Ryan is on-again, off-again.

House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R) is escorted to the West Wing on March 7, 2013 for a lunch with US President Barack Obama at the White House in Washington, DC.
House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan is escorted to the White House for his lunch with President Obama on Friday.

Photo by Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

When he releases his budget Tuesday, Rep. Paul Ryan will not win membership to President Obama’s Common Sense Caucus. That’s the name the president uses to describe his yet-to-be-defined group of lawmakers who are open to supporting a grand budget bargain. Membership in the CSC is built around a basic agreement about how to shrink the deficit: Republicans will accept some revenue from the tax code in exchange for Democrats agreeing to cuts in entitlement spending. That formula is what puts Ryan out of the running: His budget reportedly will balance in 10 years, without tax increases. His plan is also premised on the repeal of Obamacare.

To achieve balance, Ryan’s budget will also use magic beans and cut funding for unicorn husbandry. That’s the tone of administration officials responding to Ryan’s budget. Despite the mockery, the president invited Ryan to lunch last week, and White House press secretary Jay Carney said the president thinks Ryan is a “thought leader in the Republican party.” So what’s going on here?

The president’s outreach to Paul Ryan shows just how flexible he is trying to appear in his overtures to Republicans. He’s not just going after the low hanging fruit—senators with a history of bipartisanship—he’s going for the top budget banana. The approach also marks at least the third stage in the Obama/Ryan relationship, which has gone from warm to chilly to late-night Siberian ice fishing in January. The icicles are melting a bit, and while they may never disappear, finding the right temperature may be a key to determining whether a grand budget bargain can be struck.

In the early days of the administration, the Obama and Ryan relationship started out warmly. In January 2010, when Obama attended the House Republican retreat in Baltimore, he tried to show how much respect he had for those with an opposing ideology by talking about Ryan. He called him a “sincere guy” whose roadmap for balancing the budget was a “serious proposal.” In the meeting, the president several times said he didn’t want to oversimplify Ryan’s plan for fear of mischaracterizing it. He then used Ryan’s plan to make a general appeal for removing politics from either side’s proposals for reforming Medicare. “We’re not going to be able to do anything about any of these entitlements if what we do is characterized, whatever proposals are put out there, as, well, you know, that’s—the other party is being irresponsible; the other party is trying to hurt our senior citizens.”

A year and a half later, Obama was using Ryan as a political foil. At a speech at George Washington University in April 2011, with the budget chairman in the audience, the president said Ryan was trying to change the basic social compact in America by destroying entitlements that had protected Americans. Ryan became a regular target for White House attacks, which continued as he signed up as Mitt Romney’s running mate. Obama’s second term kicked off with an attack on the budget chairman in the president’s inaugural address. “They do not make us a nation of takers,” said the president referring to the entitlement programs of Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. “They free us to take the risks that make this country great.” It was a shot at Ryan, whose talk about “takers who feed off the government and don’t pay taxes” became a white-hot issue during the presidential campaign. 

Now President Obama is back to visiting with the House Republicans. He’ll make a trip Wednesday to meet with the House GOP conference on Capitol Hill. And he’s back to reaching out to Ryan. According to conversations with White House officials, the president and his aides know it is a long and contentious process to find common ground with Ryan—the budget Obama will release won’t make any attempt to balance the ledger—but showing respect for Romney’s former running mate helps ease the partisan tensions a bit. That’s a necessary step to putting a deal of any kind together with Republicans.

Ryan has also shown that he can be a conduit between GOP political realists and the more conservative members of the House Republican conference. He agreed to revenue increases as part of the deal to avert the “fiscal cliff,” and he argued for not staging a fight over the last debt ceiling increase. Democrats in the White House and on the Hill are still suspicious, but these two acts give those who fantasize about a grand bargain a way to explain how the Paul Ryan of the past could join in a grand bargain compromise.

Working with Ryan is also a requirement if Obama is to reach a budget deal through the normal channels. The theory of the moment is that the president’s best route is to take advantage of the pause between crises and work through the slower, slightly more reasonable congressional process. If the regular way of doing things does prove possible, then Ryan and his Democratic counterpart, Sen. Patty Murray, will meet in a conference committee to hash out the partisan disputes over tax increases, cuts in popular domestic programs, and changes to entitlements. If there’s going to be a deal through the normal procedures, that’s where it will get done and where Ryan will prove whether he can be an honorary member of the Common Sense Caucus.