Is Obama Relying Too Much on the “Bully Pulpit?”

Steve Sack, The Minneapolis Star Tribune

Is President Barack Obama relying too much on the bully pulpit in his speeches and interviews and not focusing enough on pulling out all stops to work with members of Congress to avert the draconian sequester cuts from going into effect?

That’s a new question being raised in some reporting and analysis — seemingly given credibility by the White House’s new effort to stress that they’re reaching across the aisle. To be sure, for Obama to reach across the aisle there has to be someone there to accept his hand, rather than hold out a hand with one finger up. But this question is being raised about how Obama’s efforts to work the system versus working the polity compare with other Presidents’ efforts. And all of this is tied into the eventual “blame game” that will dominate news stories if the cuts go into effect — and generate the “plight stories” such cuts are sure to produce.

For instance, The Politico:

President Barack Obama’s greatest adversary in the latest budget battle isn’t the Republican leadership in Congress — it’s his confidence in his own ability to force a win.

He has been so certain of his campaign skills that he didn’t open a line of communication with House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell until Thursday, a week before the spending ax hits. And when they did finally hear from Obama, the calls were perfunctory, with no request to step up negotiations or invitations to the White House.

So far you can’t talk about significant progress. The question if the cuts go into effect is: who will the public blame more? Right now the polls are definitive: the Republicans will get the bulk of the blame (here’s just one recent poll). And political buzz on cable and elsewhere about how Republicans want to make sure they assure their base that they’re willing to fight by letting the sequester happen won’t help the GOP. But is Obama overplaying the bully pulpit card?

That’s because Obama’s all-in on an outside strategy, doing just about everything other than holding serious talks with Republicans. In the last two days alone, he’s courted local TV anchors, called in a select group of White House correspondents to talk off the record, chatted up black broadcasters and announced plans to stump next week at Virginia’s Newport News Shipyard. Throughout, he’s talked in tough terms that signal little interest in compromise — or suggestion of backing down.

He’s navigating a thin line. Obama is convinced he’s got the upper hand on Republicans. Yet he can go only so long before he risks being perceived as a main actor in Washington’s dysfunction, threatening a core element of his political brand — and the fragile economic recovery he’s struggled to maintain.

The calls placed Thursday to Boehner and McConnell were prompted, in part, by a White House desire to inoculate Obama from that exact criticism.

So far, the White House has reason to feel good about where it stands. New polling shows Obama’s popularity sits at a three-year high. Americans would blame Republicans if a deal to avert the sequester isn’t reached. And even a majority of Republican voters back Obama’s call for both spending cuts and tax hikes.

But Obama’s been virtually absent from the legislative process — more so than during previous budget showdowns. And if the president wants his public offensive to work, he needs to keep attention focused on Republicans and why they refuse to consider new revenue as part of a deal to avert the $1.2 trillion sequester.

“I will be honest with you right now,” Obama told SiriusXM host Joe Madison Thursday, “it is not clear to me that the Republicans are going to agree to turn this sequester off despite the fact that 75 percent of the American people agree with me in terms of the approach and disagree with them.”

Democratic and Republican veterans of Capitol Hill called the lack of interaction so close to a major deadline unusual, even by recent Washington standards.

“We don’t hear from the president or his staff a lot but there is usually at least something,” McConnell spokesman Don Stewart said shortly before Obama’s call.

The National Journal’s Charlie Cook thinks Obama’s approach of taking to the hustings can be counterproductive in some cases:

As we watch President Obama stumping for comprehensive immigration reform, the question arises: Does his high-visibility association with this issue make reform more or less likely to happen? The challenge of achieving comprehensive immigration legislation is not in winning the votes of House and Senate Democrats; it’s in getting enough Republican votes to pass it in the House and to avoid a filibuster in the Senate. Even after the party’s election debacle in November, and the role of Latino and Asian voters in bringing it about, persuading enough House Republicans and at least five GOP senators to support comprehensive immigration reform is going to be a heavy lift for party leaders, who clearly understand the importance of getting this issue off the table.

Every time Obama takes a public stand on immigration, he makes it that much more difficult for Republican members of Congress to support it. Keep in mind that 94 percent of House Republicans are in districts Mitt Romney carried and that 34 of 45 GOP senators represent states Obama lost. As a result, most congressional Republicans are far more afraid of losing a primary to a more conservative challenger than a general election to a Democrat. It is a lot easier for them to support an immigration bill that has broad-based support in the business and farming communities (and that also happens to be supported by Obama and the Democratic leadership) than to back a bill so popularly identified with the other side. If the president really cares about enacting immigration reform, he will get off the campaign trail, depoliticize it, and keep as quiet about it as he can.

To a hammer, everything looks like a nail; too often with this White House, the solution to any challenge is ramping up campaign-style events. Bad idea.

But one reality here seems to be that no matter what action is taken, it becomes a new major political issue. For instance, read The Hill’s account of Obama’s call to GOP leaders. A simple event? No. It itself now is a political issue — to the point where the phone call itself and the apparent intent is almost obscured:

President Obama on Thursday phoned Republican leaders in Congress to discuss the impasse surrounding $85 billion in automatic spending cuts set to hit the government on March 1.

Obama made phone calls to Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) eight days before the cuts are implemented and one day after Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warned they would lead to the furloughing of 800,000 civilian defense workers.

White House press secretary Jay Carney declined to give details of the call, while Republicans picked at Obama for not calling Democrats, a criticism that suggested they saw the calls as a political stunt.

“He placed calls earlier today to Sen. McConnell and Speaker Boehner, had good conversations, but I have no further readout of those calls for you,” Carney told reporters at his daily press briefing.

The calls appear aimed at demonstrating Obama is engaged in trying to avert the sequester — which the president has described as a “meat cleaver” approach to budget cutting — and to answer GOP criticisms he hasn’t reached out to them on major policy disputes.

A spokesman for Boehner suggested Obama should instead focus his efforts on Senate Democrats, noting that while the House has passed a pair of sequester replacement bills, the upper chamber has passed none.

“If he wants to avert the sequester, shouldn’t the President be focused on the House of Congress that HASN’T acted, and where his own political party holds the majority?” Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said in an email.

The Speaker has insisted repeatedly that the House will not act again to replace the automatic cuts until a plan passes the Senate. But the odds of a deal in the Senate are slim, with McConnell saying that he is “not interested in an eleventh-hour negotiation.”

“It’s pretty clear to me that the sequester is going to go into effect,” McConnell told reporters last week.

Partisans can choose which side is to blame (not a hard bet to place in Vegas on which side each group of partisans will choose). But it does seem to be that Obama is pulling out all campaign stops to generate pressure on Congress and GOPers want to give the party’s base what it wants.
The Huffington Post:

Signaling an attempt to break an impasse, President Barack Obama on Thursday placed calls to House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell about the looming spending cuts set to kick in on March 1. Neither side reported progress, however, and aides taunted each other with Twitter messages.

The outreach was Obama’s first in weeks to top Republicans in Congress. They came as both parties remained in a stalemate over how to avoid automatic, across-the-board cuts that would trim $85 billion from most government accounts.

White House spokesman Jay Carney revealed the calls Thursday, describing them as “good conversations.” But neither he nor top Republican aides offered details about the discussions, the kind of restraint that has in the past indicated a move toward genuine negotiations. Obama also spoke to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., on Thursday, though aides said both men speak frequently.

Obama sounded cautious about chances for a breakthrough during a Thursday interview with television and radio talk show host Al Sharpton.

“At this point, we continue to reach out to the Republicans and say this is not going to be good for the economy, and it’s not going to be good for ordinary people,” Obama said. “But I don’t know if they’re going to move, and that’s what we’re going to have to try to keep pushing over the next seven, eight days.”