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To Obama, GOP's Opposition Is Personal

To Obama, GOP's Opposition Is Personal

By Alexis Simendinger - March 2, 2013

So deeply ingrained is the animus aimed at Barack Obama that conservative lawmakers would rather put Americans out of work, sabotage valuable contracts for small businesses, and eject preschoolers from Head Start classrooms rather than give the president a legislative “win.”

The president himself made that argument Friday while explaining why across-the-board spending cuts could not be averted by March 1, and why he would now spend weeks or months, if necessary, working to get Congress to reverse what he called “dumb” budget policy.

Fresh from an hour-long meeting with congressional leaders, Obama appeared even-tempered and reassuring as he described the partisan stalemates that have engulfed government budgeting for what could wind up being the better part of his second term.

“I recognize that it's very hard for Republicans leaders to be perceived as making concessions to me,” Obama said, grinning during a hastily called news conference. He said he asks himself, “Is there something else I could do to make these guys -- I'm not talking about the leaders now, but maybe some of the House Republican caucus members -- not paint horns on my head?”

It was not the first time that Obama has described himself as a long-suffering target of House conservatives’ wrath. More than compromising with White House policies, Republicans fear the political blowback of collaborating with him, he said, especially the few who agree with the White House that Congress should end special tax breaks for oil and gas companies and the wealthy. He said even the most accepted policies he adapted from Republicans are deep-sixed by the GOP simply because he has backed them.

“There are Republicans in Congress who privately, at least, say that they would rather close tax loopholes than let these cuts go through,” Obama said. “There is a caucus of common sense up on Capitol Hill. It's a silent group right now, and we want to make sure that their voices start getting heard.”

Explaining the Washington face-off in personal terms may help Obama bond with America’s everyday folk, who he said are on the brink of long waits at airports and at U.S. borders -- because spending is to be slashed by $85 billion, and federal workers will be sent home without pay as a way to trim deficits.

Obama appealed to his base, and by deflecting blame for his inability to reach an agreement with conservatives, he also embraced the frustrations of middle- and lower-income Americans who want Washington to work, not fight.

The president asked the public to pay close attention to the slowly emerging impacts of Washington’s claw-back of funds this year. He asked them to express their views to lawmakers.

“What I've done is to make a case to the American people that we have to make sure that we have a balanced approach to deficit reduction, but that deficit reduction alone is not an economic policy,” Obama said.

Washington’s next negotiation drama arrives almost immediately because an unrelated set of federal funding instructions that keep the government operating will expire on March 27. If partisan disagreements continue to fester, the government could shut down. To avoid that, Obama said he wants to sign a new measure, known as a continuing resolution, if Congress sends him a version that mirrors the previous funding levels adopted by both parties as part of 2011’s Budget Control Act. The president conceded that he would sign a measure that absorbs the sequestration instructions, which kicked in on Friday night.

Obama said he would work separately with Congress to achieve a new budget accord that would void the effects of sequestration, and also tackle new revenues, spending reductions, and savings from Medicare and Social Security over the long term. Since 2011, the parties have been unable to agree to such a sweeping budget accord, although spending reductions and tax changes resulted from skirmishes along the way. But after each round of brinksmanship, Washington’s mood for compromise has soured.

Minutes after suggesting he’s a toxic ingredient in negotiations, at least among some conservatives, Obama also offered two seemingly contradictory arguments. He declared his persuasive powers irrelevant when it comes to working with the opposing party. Then he said he’s made good progress with the GOP on the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act; immigration reform; controls on guns; and early childhood education policies.

“The issue is not my persuasive power,” the president told reporters. “The American people agree with my approach. They agree that we should have a balanced approach to deficit reduction. . . . I have a lot of confidence that over time, if the American people express their displeasure about how something's working, that eventually Congress responds.”

In other words, political risks and rewards determine whether Republicans decide to work with him or oppose his ideas, Obama said. It’s not a breathtaking revelation, but he conceded again that Republicans seem unmoved by the stature of his presidency, or by his legislative acumen.

Republican lawmakers rebuke Obama for what they say is a permanent campaign. But on Friday, the president explained why he has tried to govern from outside Washington, hoping to influence lawmakers who have opposing worldviews. Without voters’ interest -- without serious political stakes -- the president worries that he cannot enact major pieces of legislation in the next 11 months. And that’s the timeline White House aides say Obama has before the midterm elections slow momentum on Capitol Hill.

I am not a dictator,” Obama said.

“I'm not a judge. I’m the president,” he said.

“I can make the best possible case for why we need to do the right thing. I can speak to the American people about the consequences of the decisions this Congress is making or the lack of decision-making by Congress,” he added. “What I can't do is force Congress to do the right thing.” 

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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