Barack Obama is back on the schmooze. Wednesday night he was entertaining Republican senators at the swanky Jefferson Hotel. Next week, he’s driving down the avenue to visit Republicans in the House and Senate separately.
You may remember that shortly after the election the president declared that schmoozing the opposition was useless. At a news conference, he said that even when he invites Republicans to the White House and takes pictures with their families, “it doesn’t prevent them from going onto the floor of the House and . . . blasting me for being a big-spending socialist.” Last week he talked about Republicans who wanted to paint horns on him.
Behind the scenes, the Obama view of the GOP’s obstructionism was even rougher. Obama’s top political adviser, Dan Pfeiffer, told The Washington Post a few weeks ago: “There’s a moment of opportunity now that’s important,” Pfeiffer said. “What’s frustrating is that we don’t have a political system or an opposition party worthy of the opportunity.” As recently as a week and a half ago, the president’s aides were pointing to a slew of polls that showed the White House was winning budget fights handily over Republicans. The sequestration, they predicted, would put the GOP in such a pinch that Republicans would ultimately give in to the president’s call for a mix of tax increases and spending cuts to avert the across-the-board sequestration cuts.
It didn’t turn out that way, so now the president is adapting.
Since re-election, President Obama has been working on two tracks with Republicans. He has used a softer approach on issues such as immigration, education and gun safety, but taken a tougher line on budget issues. The GOP cried uncle twice on the fiscal cliff and over debt-limit negotiations. They didn’t budge on sequestration, and the polls got fuzzier. A new CBS poll shows that 35 percent of Americans blame the president for the sequester, almost as much as the 38 percent who blame congressional Republicans. That’s not a big enough margin to mobilize voters and force the GOP into a deal.
So out with the roadshows and in with the chafing dishes. Obama’s dinner is the second step in a process that started with phone calls to House and Senate Republicans over the last few weeks but intensified this weekend. He’s trying to find a “common sense caucus,” as he called it. So far, the dinner list includes Sens. Kelly Ayotte, N.H.; Saxby Chambliss, Ga.; Tom Coburn, Okla.; Bob Corker, Tenn.; John Hoeven, N.D.; Mike Johanns, Neb.; John McCain, Ariz.; Dan Coats, Ind.; Pat Toomey, Pa.; Richard Burr, N.C.; and Ron Johnson, Wisc. The list was put together by South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, who will also attend.
The GOP’s actual congressional leaders are not invited to this new round of negotiations, at least not now. The president has had enough battles with House Speaker John Boehner and isn’t going back to direct negotiations with him. (That’s just fine with Boehner.) On the Senate side, Obama has sent Joe Biden to cut deals with Sen. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in the past, but McConnell is up for re-election in 2014. The president’s aides think that makes him a complicated and more unwilling partner than usual.
There’s also the view in the White House that perhaps the GOP leaders are not telling their Republican caucus members exactly what Obama has offered. Throughout the last few budget negotiations, a handful of Republican senators have seemed unaware of the president’s actual positions. The president is now going to take his ideas to them directly. The principle topic is his desire to reach a grand budget bargain based on a deal in which Republicans agree to $600 billion or so in revenue from tax reform and Obama agrees to changes to entitlement programs. Of three possible entitlement changes cited most often — changing the formula used to calculate Social Security payments, raising premiums for wealthy Medicare recipients, and increasing the program’s eligibility age — Obama has agreed to the first two.
White House aides know this outreach is a long shot, but it’s the best approach of all the long shots left to solve the budget impasse. Senate Republicans are more independent and compromise-minded than their Republican House counterparts. For example, 89 percent of Senate Republicans voted yes on fiscal cliff bill at the end of last year, compared with 36 percent of House Republicans. If the president can win a deal in the Senate, he assumes John Boehner will be pressured into at least allowing a House vote on it. Such a measure would probably have to pass with a majority of House Republicans voting against it.
If the president is going to make a deal with Republican senators, he’s going to have to create a pathway for them. That will mean he has to tone down the rhetoric, particularly on blaming Republicans for every ill that might happen as a result of the sequester. Republican senators might be open to a deal, but not if the president is painting their party as a haven for the cruel and unfeeling. At least one administration aide suggests that now that the run-up to sequestration is over, the president will back off, or at least reduce, the attacks. In the end, the measure of the president’s willingness to work with the other side may not be whether has them over for dinner, but whether he stops filleting them.
John Dickerson is Slate’s chief political correspondent and author of “On Her Trail.”