In President Obama’s first fiscal negotiations with Republicans after the GOP won the House in 2010, he called his adversaries “hostage takers.” Now, he simply says they are extortionists.
He’s gone from “Dog Day Afternoon” to “Goodfellas.”
Call it progress.
But Obama’s message is still very much the same as it has been throughout this 33-month-long budget boxing match. The two punch-drunk fighters are swinging more wildly now, but the strategy remains the same: Everybody is looking for a TKO.
Obama has negotiated repeatedly over raising the federal borrowing limit, but now says that he refuses to do so, since he does not want to give in to “extortion.” Republicans scoffed at the claim, pointing out that the president will readily negotiate with Russian President Vladimir Putin but not with his fellow Americans.
And Obama would no doubt much rather negotiate with Putin over the civil war in Syria than he would have to again revisit the grinding fiscal fight that has dominated his presidency. Avoiding entry into an unpopular war has appeal (as well as the possibility of some glory among the UN set). It pleases the president’s political base and requires no ideological compromise for a president who ran for office on a platform that emphasized talking through troubles rather than military force.
What glory or hope could Obama find in negotiating with Republicans? To get anywhere, the president would have to do what he has shown an absolute allergy to in the past: Taking on his own base. The president says that he was ready to talk about entitlements, but that Republicans are too unreasonable.
One wonders whether a president who got backed off of his own “red line” on Syria and who scuttled the nomination of his former top economic adviser to lead the Fed was really ready to do anything more than talk. After the revelations about Obama’s expansion of domestic spying and Eric Holder’s press plumber brigade, the president probably wasn’t prepared to do even talk much more about a subject that makes his base recoil.
And imagine the exchange in which Obama explained to union leaders that no, he would not spare them from damaging provisions of his health law, but hey, by the way, he’d like a little help on paring back Social Security.
As the president’s popular support has shriveled after months and months of bad news, he is increasingly beholden to the left wing of his party. If Obama can get rolled by the Congressional Black Caucus on Syria and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., on Larry Summers, he wasn’t really in much of a place to demand anything from them on a “grand bargain.” And since Obama’s heart is likely with them on the issue, it wouldn’t have taken much convincing to have ended his half-hearted charge.
Putin is offering something Obama he wants, a classic “win-win.” Obama gets to avoid military action but still say that the use of chemical weapons is intolerable; Putin gets to prop up his ally in Damascus and expand Russia’s clout in the region.
There is a possible win for both sides in the budget battles, but at a heavy price and great risk for Obama. As Obama looks at House Speaker John Boehner up to his elbows in alligators trying to make a debt deal with conservative Republicans, the president must feel justified in declining to do the same with the crocodilians in his own party.
The “win-win” offered on the budget is that both sides could look good for coming up with a compromise plan and take credit for the economic boost that would result. But Obama would have to give up things to get there and he would have to fight the political base that made him president. Given the Republican antipathy toward his agenda, Obama concluded he would be better to ride it out and cater to his own base.
The only risks Obama seems willing to take are in escalating his attacks on his rivals, displayed this week in his harangue launched during the Navy Yard manhunt. It pleases Democrats who have long demanded that the president be even more unyielding with the GOP, believing that the conservative party is just one disaster away from oblivion. The left cries, “Jump the cliff,” and Obama straps on his skis.
But Republicans are starting the painful process of settling on some sort of plan to fund the government and lift the borrowing cap. It will be more unhappy work for Boehner to produce a plan that will still be dismissed wholly by the president, but it looks likely that the House will be able to produce something.
How plausible would it be for the president to maintain his “no negotiations” posture? Not very. He’ll have to deal anyway.
The only difference between Obama’s negotiations with Putin and Boehner then would be that the president would never say the things about Russia’s strongman that he has about the weakened speaker of the House. And that’s very telling indeed.
Chris Stirewalt is digital politics editor for Fox News. His Power Play column appears Tuesdays and Thursdays at FoxNews.com. Catch Chris live online weekdays at 11:30 am ET. Read his “Fox News First” newsletter published each weekday morning. Sign up here.
Chris Stirewalt joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in July of 2010 and serves as politics editor based in Washington, D.C.