The most famous talked-about couple in Washington needs serious therapy. No, not Michelle and Barack – I’m talking about the President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner.
Watching those two guide the country through difficult times is like witnessing "The War of the Roses" – the film variety.
Unfortunately, instead of the relatively trivial matter of managing household finances, our elected leaders need to come together on solving our country’s dire fiscal problems. Most immediately, they need to raise the nation’s debt ceiling.
As with many troubled couples, these two cannot agree on money matters. Like a wife ignorant of the family’s finances, Obama wants ever more and ultimately ruinous spending. Boehner is the stern husband trying to talk sense.
Beyond philosophical disagreements, and adding to their inability to function well together, Messrs. Obama and Boehner do not appear to have a high regard for each other. This is disastrous in marriage, and in politics. In "Blink," author Malcolm Gladwell introduces psychologist John Gottman, who claims that after only fifteen minutes of observing a couple, he can predict with 90% accuracy their chance of a successful marriage. (Really, I’ve always wondered why don't more young hopefuls don’t sign up for this?)
What are the signals? He ascribes most marital failures to the presence of four behaviors: defensiveness, stonewalling, criticism and contempt.
It is hard to come up with four words that more appropriately describe the relationship between the House Speaker and the president, who have regularly indulged in angry phone calls, pouting and blame-throwing. There is one reaction, though, that is determining, and that is contempt. As Gottman explains, “...if I speak from a superior plane, that’s far more damaging, and contempt is any statement from a higher level.”
Does anyone doubt that President Obama speaks from a higher plane? That he is dismissive of John Boehner? Do we imagine that John Boehner is enthralled with the president?
The Speaker reported recently that Obama told him, “we don’t have a spending problem.” Boehner was not only exasperated, he was also incredulous. After four years of trillion-dollar deficits on his watch, after suffering the first U.S. credit downgrade in generations, having been on the receiving end of stern warnings from the IMF of the sort usually reserved for countries like Zambia, and with every reasoned analysis projecting fiscal Armageddon if Medicare is not brought to heel, how could the president not recognize the urgency of bringing long-term entitlements spending under control?
Boehner’s explanation is that President Obama is “so ideological himself”, as he told the Wall Street Journal’s Stephen Moore, and that he is “unwilling to take on the left wing of his own party.” It’s hard to say which the Speaker considers worse.
When Boehner tried to press his concern about excessive U.S. spending, Obama reportedly replied, “I’m getting tired of hearing you say that.” How very Marie Antoinette.
As in most marital spats, there are hints of affections straying. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has played, perhaps, the “other woman”, to pursue this analogy. Christie was charged with introducing candidate Mitt Romney at the GOP convention -- perhaps the most important speech at the Republican gathering –- testament to his stature in the party.
He spent that coveted spot mainly talking about himself, and giving but mildly enthusiastic support for his party’s hopeful, planting seeds of doubt in the minds of some that he was the GOP’s best bet for 2016. However, his standing took an even greater hit when he bear-hugged (literally and figuratively) President Obama in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Coming as it did just before the election, the Sandy love-fest, and Christie, are blamed for boosting Obama’s image at a critical moment.
More recently, Christie savagely criticized the Speaker’s failure to ram through the relief bill so needed by New Jersey and other states badly damaged by the hurricane. Christie’s attack, on the heels of the dalliance with Obama, has helped dim the public’s view of Boehner, further trimming his negotiating ability.
The Speaker Boehner has determined that he will forgo any more closed-door negotiations with the president, considering them “futile.” The president, in return, has vowed not to negotiate over raising the debt ceiling. More and more Obama has turned to executive orders to carry out his agenda – including most recently threatening to use that means to enact gun controls. The relationship, as poor as it was, appears to be on the skids. This is not entirely good news for the country.
Is it time to bring in marriage counselors? One team that might help the fractious twosome is former Senators Simpson and Bowles. This bipartisan duo, after all, was asked by President Obama to come up with a long-term plan for putting our nation’s finances in order. They did a bang-up job of putting everything on the table, and proposing measures that both right and left found odious. That was the virtue of their plan, which remains the best blueprint – or at least the most intelligent starting point -- for putting our house in order.
Numerous House Republicans in the past couple of days have proposed taking up the Simpson-Bowles plan; Texas Representative Steve Stockman has said he would introduce it as a bill in the House. Unfortunately, Obama dismissed the plan as readily as a shopaholic housewife scorns a budget; the plan was DOA.
Indeed, it is of course not just DC’s most talked-about visible power twosome duo that is having difficulties. The entire extended body politic -- GOP and Dems alike – cannot communicate.They talk right by each other on important matters like reining in our spiraling entitlements obligations, how we are going to rebuild our outdated infrastructure, the best way to rationalize our immigration system and improve our public schools, how to simplify and improve our tax code, how to reboot job creation and make sure our institutions are protected from cyberthreats.
We have real problems, and a legislative body – and White House – that seems unable to get the nation’s business done. As a result, Americans are ever more anxious about our future. They say politics makes strange bedfellows. Sadly for the country, Beltway insiders have apparently taken a vow of chastity.