We all get a little exhausted just before summer vacation. Proof of that in Washington is that President Barack Obama and House Republicans head into the vacation period embracing the same tired theme: how bad Washington is. That’s why President Obama traveled to Illinois and Missouri this week to deliver speeches on the economy. The point of the excursion, White House aide Dan Pfeiffer told reporters in an email, is that the president thinks “Washington has largely taken its eye off the ball when it comes to the economy.” President Obama told volunteers that he will concentrate on “how we need to put behind us the distractions and the phony debate and nonsense that somehow passes for politics these days and get back to basics, refocus on what it is that everybody is talking about around the kitchen table, what people are talking about day to day with their families.”
The president is using his fellow politicians down the street as a foil to bring attention to his more considered view. Meanwhile, House Republicans will be heading back to their districts with a binder labeled “Fighting Washington for All Americans.” It is full of summer tactical advice about how they can connect with their constituents by railing against Washington.
Apparently this is the Summer of Self-Hate: Washington politicians railing against Washington politicians. They’re joining a national chorus. In a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, 83 percent of voters disapprove of the job Congress is doing, an all-time high in the survey. President Obama’s 45 percent job-approval rating is at its lowest level since two summers ago when the debt-ceiling fight bruised everyone involved. Almost 60 percent in the survey say they would vote to defeat and replace every single member of Congress if they could – another all-time high.
By blaming Washington, politicians seek to anticipate public anger and channel it, but it may very well stoke the embers. Or it should, anyway. The finger-pointing from both quarters is a sign that the next round of budget fights will be just as small-minded and irritating as the last several. Partisan audiences probably won’t mind though. They’re happy to hear stories about the other team and since we’re headed into a non-presidential election year, those partisan audiences are the most important ones to reach.
Last weekend on Face the Nation, John Boehner put the House strategy in pithy form. Judge us not by what bills we pass, the Republican speaker of the House said, but by what we undo. As Roll Call reports, that’s the message at the heart of a set of instructions issued to House Republicans. A “sample op-ed” in the GOP binders, titled Fighting Washington for You, encourages members to write “Washington is out of control.” House Republicans are encouraged to say things such as, “Every day I serve in Congress, I work to fight Washington,” and, according to Roll Call, the memo suggests the member use the op-ed to tout an event where attendees won’t get “another boring speech or more inside-the-Beltway rhetoric.” Talking points are the bouillon cube of inside-the-Beltway rhetoric, so when your talking points instruct you to boast about how you won’t use inside-the-Beltway rhetoric, you’re ready for a nap and a wet washcloth. You have lost the theme.
The president’s economic speech Wednesday kicks off a series of at least six such events scheduled for the next couple of months. It is based on a wiggly logic. Aides say Washington has lost focus, but isn’t part of the president’s job to keep Washington politicians focused? Indeed, that’s what the White House has been doing: staying focused. Just ask them. During the spring and early summer as various controversies erupted, White House aides said they were at their desk bearing down on the important work. White House chief of staff Denis McDonough told everyone to only spend 10 percent of their time on the outrage of the day and the rest of the time working on bigger issues.
But when Pfeiffer says Washington doesn’t have “its eye on the ball” he is really referring to Twitter chatter, cable news sparring, and the message of the day coming out of the partisan opposition. There hasn’t been a lot of talk about the economy there. Fair point. But the failure to put in place an adult, reasonable set of fiscal policies is not the result of distracted Washington politicians and elites. That failure exists because the president and Republican leaders cannot find common ground.
Since that is the case, there’s not much hope the president’s forays outside of Washington are going to help us all think afresh. The president has tried time and again to win over the chatter world with his economic argument. He’s made it the focus of his State of the Union addresses, he’s published glossy binders, he’s cycled through slogans (“win the future,” etc.). It was the central topic of the 2012 presidential campaign. A president’s ability to rally the country to a complicated set of proposals is limited — and President Obama has proved it. Not much will come of these trips, other than the White House can say it tried. (A president can’t simply do nothing.)
John Dickerson is Slate’s chief political correspondent.