Is Obama Setting a Trap for Republicans?

Nah, he’s just trying to ensure his place in the history books. Like most days.

President Barack Obama is seen speaking to reporters in the White House briefing room in Washington, Friday, March 1, 2013, following his meeting with congressional leaders regarding the automatic spending cuts.

President Barack Obama following a March 1 meeting with congressional leaders regarding the automatic spending cuts

Photo by Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

In politics and human relations, it’s best to be skeptical of uncharacteristic generosity. When my son offers to do the dishes, I know I’ll find something broken somewhere in the house soon enough. When an email from a distant acquaintance starts on a chatty note, I prepare for the Big Ask. In only the most well-adjusted marriages would a spouse’s surprise gift of flowers not stir the least bit of suspicion in their mate.

So it is only fitting that Republicans are suspicious of President Obama’s warming trend. One minute he’s dismissing us and the next he’s picking up the tab for dinner? In short, goes the theory, Obama’s charm offensive is a trap. The president is putting on a good face for the public in order to set up his opponents for the 2014 elections. When no budget deal is reached, the president will be able to say that he tried but the Republicans rebuffed him and should be thrown out of office. 

This suspicion would be natural in a normal relationship, let alone one as poisoned as the relationship between the president and the GOP. But to stay intact this theory must survive at least two challenges. It misunderstands President Obama’s ambition (he cares more about his legacy than he does Congressional Democrats) and it suggests Obama learned nothing from his first several years in office when he attempted the strategy Republicans are accusing him of, and failed.

We know this much about Barack Obama: He is ambitious. When advisers wanted to go for a more modest health care bill in his first term, he pushed for Obamacare, citing his desire to do big things. We also know presidents think about their legacies in the second term. Republicans have long argued that the president’s ego is as large as the national debt. If you map out his DNA, it reads: me, me, me. So, what is likely to win the president greater glory in the history books: a grand bargain that leads to a healthy economy or the return of a Democratic House majority? 

The president and his advisers believe that a grand budget deal would help an economy that is poised to take off. Recent economic data, including February’s strong jobs numbers, confirm their view that economic conditions are on the upswing. If the president can contribute to fixing the budget mess, consumers and companies will spend more and the economy will blossom. The president would be able to claim he revived the economy after the worst downturn since the Great Depression. A grand bargain would also allow him to say that even though everyone thought Washington was broken, he was able to forge a deal that tackled a problem people tell pollsters they care the most about. 

Now, let’s consider the glory associated with the outreach-as-trap theory. If the endgame were to win the 17 Democratic seats necessary for Democrats to take  control the House—a few seats won’t do—that would be an accomplishment, but not really one to light up the history books. More important, it wouldn’t reflect direct glory on Obama.

Also, this electoral strategy doesn’t do anything to address the economy. The president and his advisers think these budget clashes keep a lid on growth; if the president were to go this route, Obama would be resigning himself to a legacy in which the Obama economy is remembered as constantly struggling. Also, I’ve had a lot of conversations over the years with Democratic operatives who have regularly complained that Obama cares more about himself than fellow Democrats. If he’s now adopting a Congress-first strategy, it would represent a significant change in character, especially for a second-term president.

But wait, what about the theory of two months ago that Obama wanted to destroy the Republican Party? The truth at the center of that theory is still the same: Obama is ambitious. What has changed is the tactic. During the post-election budget fights, the president had more leverage than he does now. He’d just thrashed Mitt Romney and polls showed that voters preferred his ideas to Republican ones. He decided to work that advantage by pressuring Republicans right out of the gate. He pressured them in the fiscal cliff negotiations and debt ceiling fights, and he succeeded. He tried again in the battle over sequestration and it didn’t work. The across-the-board cuts took place and the president’s approval numbers and advantage over Republicans dropped with it.

The tactic failed, but the ambition remains. So he’s changing tactics on the budget from pressure to outreach. 

That’s just what the president wants you to think, say the skeptics. They know the truth, and they have a White House leak to prove it. In a recent National Journal article, an anonymous White House adviser told Ron Fournier that the president’s slap and tickle with Republicans is a sham. “This is a joke. We’re wasting the president’s time and ours. I hope you all (in the media) are happy because we’re doing it for you.” The minute this quote hit the Internet, I got two emails from House Speaker John Boehner’s office and the Republican National Committee put out a press release. On Twitter, a variety of Republicans cited it as proof for a variety of claims. “Is the president serious about a grand bargain?” asked Karl Rove. “WH adviser gives us our answer.”

What are we to make of this? First, when a former White House adviser who once decried anonymous quotes cites an anonymous quote as holding a singular truth, you should be suspicious. Second, when someone tries to tell you one anonymous quote is the truth while ignoring what appears just one skinny line space away, that person is treating you like an idiot. In the next sentence, Fournier quotes another White House source who claims the president is sincerely reaching out to Republicans. The most plausible interpretation of the blind quote based on my conversations with administration aides is that there are those in the administration who think trying to negotiate with Republicans is a joke because the GOP will never cooperate in the end, not because the president is engaged in a deliberate sham. The more on the record version of this is “we’re not naïve about the chances for a grand bargain.” 

Still, White House press secretary Jay Carney was trying to clobber the anonymous notion in his Tuesday press conference: “I have no idea who said that, but I can tell you that opinion has never been voiced in my presence, in the president’s presence, in the West Wing. It does not represent the president’s view, it does not represent the White House’s view, and it does not represent the administration’s view.”

Fortunately, as a thinking member of the electorate, you don’t have to adjudicate whether the anonymous source represents metaphysical truth. Whether the president thinks his efforts to reach out to Republicans are a joke or not is not that relevant. His sincerity about a specific tactic used to reach the grand bargain doesn’t speak to whether he’s sincere about the grand bargain itself. The president can think that the outreach strategy is a joke but that some other strategy might work. We don’t know. Furthermore, being skeptical that a strategy will work doesn’t undermine the enterprise. Many Republican lawmakers, for example, are highly skeptical that Obama is serious. They don’t trust him. They think working with him is a joke. But it doesn’t follow that they are less committed to a grand budget bargain. 

Politicians engage in activity all the time that either they or their staff thinks isn’t likely to amount to much. That is a key requirement of politics—to engage in activity you find meaningless, suspicious, and silly—because it helps you to reach a larger goal. (I am certain that even Karl Rove did this at least once when he worked in the White House.)

One high-profile example of this truth about the disconnect between your public acts and private motivation was Mitch McConnell’s statement in 2010 that his single most important job was to make Obama a one-term president. For Democrats, what McConnell said was a revealing truth, the way this anonymous White House aide is speaking the truth for Republicans. Republicans defended McConnell, saying his remark wasn’t a sign the Republican Senate leader had totally thrown over his duty to the people for political gain. Of course Mitch McConnell wanted Barack Obama to be a one-term president. It’s not the kind of thing you are supposed to say out loud if you are adhering to the traditions of the Senate, maybe, but that’s a matter of etiquette. When McConnell uttered those words it didn’t tell us anything new about McConnell’s underlying posture. He was going to try to thwart the president until either his view of the public interest or his personal ambition told him to do otherwise. That’s the natural state of things. We’d like it to be different, but it isn’t. Despite McConnell’s view, he still participated in a number of agreements with the president on the debt ceiling, funding the government, and extending the payroll tax cut. 

Republican lawmakers who will be up for re-election in 2014 will have to decide soon whether President Obama is being honest about wanting to work on a big deal or laying a trap. One fact that they might include in their thinking is that the tactic of outreach-as-trap is not very effective. The fact that they are still in office reflects this truth. Obama tried throughout 2009 and 2010 to paint Republicans as unreasonable. In 2010, Republicans retook the House. In 2012, Republicans held on to the House despite the president running the exact playbook they accuse him of running now with a general election electorate filled with more sympathetic swing voters. In 2014, the president will face the “six-year itch,” which Charlie Cook reminds us today is never good for presidents. The president’s party has lost five of the last six such elections, forfeiting an average of 29 House seats and six Senate seats. It’s possible the president is recycling this strategy in a bad historical environment, but it’s more likely that he isn’t going to risk his legacy on a failed gambit without trying something else first.  

If the long-shot attempts at a grand bargain break down, Obama will no doubt attack Republicans in 2014 with fervor, but it will be part of a political and legacy salvage operation. If his ambition is still intact, it’s possible that he might first want to pursue a strategy that adds to his greatness, rather than a long-shot strategy that at best gets him a few rays of reflected glory.