Much media attention is being paid to two reports this week about President Barack Obama’s outreach to Congressional Democrats and Republicans. But there’s a third report – less prominent but more revealing – that sheds light on the president’s real intentions.
One of the two reports that received attention is Ron Fournier’s National Journal article about Mr. Obama’s dinner last week dinner with a dozen Senate Republicans in which Fournier quotes an unnamed presidential adviser.
“This is a joke,” the senior White House official told Mr. Fournier, referring to such outreach efforts. “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.”
Despite later denials by White House press secretary Jay Carney, this candid admission can’t add to the warm and fuzzy spirit of cooperation and comity Mr. Obama insists he wants to nurture.
The second report that’s drawn attention was Tuesday when Mr. Obama told Senate Democrats that they needed to be open to entitlement reforms, such as changing the inflation measure used to calculate benefit changes. While liberal Senators met his remarks with some skepticism and more than a little resistance, it was nonetheless an important move by the president, if sincere and not for show.
The answer to whether this was a real shift in policy or merely meant for public consumption came in an interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos. In the interview, Mr. Obama dismissed the importance of a balanced budget, saying, “We don’t have an immediate crisis in terms of debt. In fact, for the next 10 years, it’s gonna be in a sustainable place.”
It actually won’t be, thanks to the president’s policies (particularly the Affordable Care Act) and saying in so many words that a debt crisis will be his successor’s problem is not a good excuse for doing nothing now.
But Mr. Obama got into even more trouble. Discussing a grand bargain to balance the budget and at least stabilize if not reduce the debt, Mr. Obama suggested the Republican position was “We can only do revenue if we gut Medicare or gut Social Security or gut Medicaid.”
Can the president name a single important Republican who wants to “gut” Medicare or Social Security?
This goes to a deeper truth. Mr. Obama cannot lead the conversation a president must have with Congress about entitlement reform because he seems wholly unable to acknowledge that reasonable people can disagree about policies while sharing a common goal.
In Mr. Obama’s view, Republicans only want “to gut” Medicare, Social Security and Medicaid. Republican policy prescriptions are not just wrong but border on malevolent. Republicans are motivated by a desire to hurt the most vulnerable members of society. And so the president, given his worldview, is incapable of finding common ground. Because you can’t compromise with evil.
Particularly for a president who fashions himself as an intellectual, this is a shallow and sanctimonious way to avoid a serious dialogue. And for a president who campaigned five years ago – it seems like a lifetime ago – saying he didn’t want to be the leader of red states or blue states but the United States, it is an ineffective, irresponsible and – dare we repeat his own description to Barbara Walters of himself – lazy way to try leading.
Name-calling, the occasional slander, and repeatedly constructing a field of strawmen are marks of seriousness. It is, to borrow a phrase from a senior Obama adviser, “a joke.” The president should stop wasting our time and his.
Mr. Obama was able to function when his party controlled the Congress with crushing margins in both houses. That was easy. Now he finds himself presiding over divided government. That is harder. And continuing attacks like this will make it impossible for Mr. Obama to forge the compromises for which presidential leadership is necessary.