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Obama Aide: "Huge Disagreements" With GOP Loom

Obama Aide: "Huge Disagreements" With GOP Loom

By Alexis Simendinger - November 21, 2014

As President Obama prepared to fly to Las Vegas Friday to tout his new executive actions on immigration, a top White House adviser faced journalists in a Washington hotel ballroom where an eggs-and-sausage breakfast was being served.

Dan Pfeiffer, an architect of the president’s political strategies and messaging, told the waiter he would stick with water.

“There are going to be huge disagreements” with Republicans in the coming months, he told reporters in response to a question about governing alongside GOP majorities in both chambers of Congress next year.

“If things don’t get done, it won’t be for lack of trying,” he added. “After the elections, it’s been the president who’s been driving the discussion in this town. … There is no reward for being meek here.”

Less than an hour later, House Speaker John Boehner announced that House Republicans had filed a long-threatened lawsuit against Obama and the administration, asserting the president overstepped his legal authority when implementing the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

Simultaneously, the House GOP’s energetic inquisitor, Rep. Darrell Issa, the outgoing chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform panel, announced a Dec. 9 hearing aimed at probing other aspects of the health law, which entered its second enrollment period on Nov. 15.

Issa requested that Marilyn Tavenner, a senior administrator in charge of implementing the ACA at the Health and Human Services Department, as well as MIT economist and former administration health policy adviser Jonathan Gruber, testify about what Issa called “transparency failures and outright deceptions.”

Hours later, GOP senators challenged the lawfulness of Obama’s deportation protection decisions, which were defended in an Office of Legal Counsel opinion released by the Justice Department. Republican lawmakers, appearing on cable television and elsewhere Friday, said conservatives would seek to block or rescind the president’s instructions to the Department of Homeland Security.

As GOP lawmakers manned rhetorical battle stations, Pfeiffer offered talking points that highlighted divisions within the Republican ranks: Obama sidestepped Congress on immigration because he decided House Republicans won’t act, and the president is “looking for partners” in the GOP leadership who will act.

Pfeiffer specifically identified Boehner as a lawmaker the White House believes would move immigration legislation in some form if he could. And incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, he pointed out, has said it is important for the GOP majorities to govern effectively next year.

In Las Vegas, the president tugged the speaker into his description of how comprehensive immigration reform ran aground.

“The only thing standing in the way of that bipartisan bill and my desk … was a simple yes or no vote in the House,” Obama said, imitating his pleas to GOP leaders this year. “I told John Boehner, `I’ll wash your car. I’ll walk your dog!’”

A male heckler broke in, throwing the president momentarily off-script at Del Sol High School. But a swell of enthusiastic listeners, chanting louder, smothered the discontent with “Si, se puede!” Yes, we can.

 

The president, at campaign-style events around the country, plans to concentrate on immigration, including during an appearance in Chicago Tuesday; in media interviews; and at gatherings with Democratic lawmakers and allied interest groups, Pfeiffer said.

Obama wants his party to illustrate with examples some of the average men, women and children who are expected by spring to apply for new protected status, he added.

The continued push for comprehensive immigration reform may unite Democrats, but the midterm election results also widened rifts and provoked second-guessing within the president’s party.

“We need more unanimity and discipline around this in the party as a whole,” Pfeiffer said, referring to the legislative and other policy achievements since 2009 that Democratic candidates skirted during their campaigns this year because of intense push-back from the GOP.

“We should be out there making the case for what we did, while understanding that people don’t feel as good about it as they should because of a decades-long trend around wage stagnation,” he added. “We have to speak to that rhetorically, but also with a set of policies.”

Obama is seeking a fresh economic approach in time for his January State of the Union address, Pfeiffer suggested.

The wave of defeats Nov. 4 prompted many progressive pollsters, analysts and stricken lawmakers to assail more publicly than they had heading into the midterms what they described as an inadequate economic agenda and a flawed Oval Office messenger. A $10.10 proposed national minimum wage and pay equity used as a bumper-sticker slogan did not drive large numbers of Democratic voters to the polls.

“You never want to have a bad election. They always feel terrible,” Pfeiffer added, “even if you have a sense that they’re not going to be great to begin with.”

The president’s senior adviser said the White House and the Democratic National Committee were in the midst of combing through the dismal midterm data to assess what happened.

“There was not enough Democratic enthusiasm in this election, so we have to look at why that is. And I think that’s certainly a question of message. It’s a question of policy, and message delivery -- how that gets done,” he said.

The arrival of the Ebola virus in the United States and the threat of Islamic State terrorists in Iraq and Syria -- masked jihadists who behead Americans -- kept Obama in Washington and made it harder for economic messages “to break through” at the end of the midterm contests, Pfeiffer noted.

He did not directly address Democrats’ belief that Obama, suffering from job approval numbers in the low 40s and unable to combat withering ads that painted him as the problem, became more drag than lift.

A retooled Democratic economic agenda could serve as a platform for candidates heading toward a Senate map that is theoretically friendlier to progressives two years from now, especially if voters are by that time experiencing the economy as more tangibly on the upswing. What is unclear is whether Obama, or Democratic presidential aspirants, should carry that message.

Contrary to pundits’ suggestions that Obama is now freed from campaign worries for the remainder of his presidency, his mind is on his successor, Pfeiffer told journalists at the roundtable breakfast hosted by the Christian Science Monitor.

“A very important thing for him will be if he’s succeeded by a Democrat,” Pfeiffer said. “In the context of thinking about politics over the next two years, that will be in our head.”

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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