Bruised Obama Still Unaware He’s in a Fight: Margaret Carlson

Stop it.”

That’s the message Representative Eric Cantor of Virginia said voters wanted him to carry to President Barack Obama at the White House Slurpee Summit, an appropriate name for something momentarily colorful and tasty with no nutritional value.

In my parental playbook, “Stop it” is often followed by “Go to your room,” which in Obama’s case is the Oval Office, an inconvenient fact for Republicans reluctant to acknowledge that he’s president.

The way Republicans see it, the results of the midterm elections put them in charge. Now the president must pay deference even to get a meeting with them. When he didn’t send a proper “Save the Date” card for a proposed summit last month, the entire Republican leadership turned him down without a compelling reason. Those with hair had to wash it that evening. The rest had headaches.

You don’t need WikiLeaks to know where Republicans stand. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky was happy to announce that the top priority for Republicans during the next two years is to defeat Obama in 2012.

Republicans were a bit more subtle as Obama prepared to take office two years ago. The new president didn’t know until much later that McConnell had called a play in the huddle to hang tough on everything. Republicans wouldn’t be just the Party of No, but the Party of Hell No. The lack of a single Republican vote in the House for the desperately needed economic stimulus in February 2009 was an early application of this strategy.

Still No

Republicans interpreted the midterm results to mean that their just-say-no strategy is a winning one. While unlikely to pursue a shut-down-the-government course, they’re not really seeking common ground. Yesterday, just one day after the White House meeting, all 42 Republican senators pledged in a letter to block all legislation until the president and Congress figure out a way to extend the tax cuts and fund the government into next year.

Obama so prefers Kumbaya bipartisan process over getting something done that he’s singlehandedly resuscitated an opposition party that looked dead after the 2008 elections. After Republicans rebuffed him on the stimulus, Obama called himself “an eternal optimist” but added, “That doesn’t mean I’m a sap.”

I wonder. Consider the still-unresolved fate of the George W. Bush tax cuts, set to expire Jan. 1. Obama is in such a defensive crouch, he doesn’t recognize the winning hand he holds. He wants to let the breaks expire for the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans and leave them intact for everybody else, meaning households that take in less than $250,000 a year.

Conflicting Goals

Polls show the public with him on this. Republicans can’t square blowing another $700 billion hole in the deficit to help the richest taxpayers while saying that lowering the deficit is the most important thing in the world to them.

They have no spending cuts to make up for it. There’s no proof that extending the tax cut for the wealthy will do anything to create one job or induce one bank to start lending again. The wealthy have largely bounced back from the economic crash.

Why wouldn’t Obama just battle to the bitter end on this one, leaving Republicans to defend their willingness to stop everything else if he doesn’t capitulate?

But no. He’s signaled he’ll agree to extend tax cuts for the wealthy to preserve those for the middle class. He’ll do it temporarily, as if not doing it permanently is a defeat for Republicans.

One-Sided Trade

He’s not getting anything so far for the middle class in exchange for what he’s prepared to give up. He unilaterally announced a two-year freeze on federal pay, without bargaining for an extension of unemployment benefits -- or, for that matter, passage of well-reasoned immigration legislation, or ratification of the START Treaty, or repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.

Obama acts as if he believes Republican rhetoric that the election put them in the driver’s seat. Polls show a modest difference in approval ratings for Republicans over Democrats. The mandate they have is the one Obama gives them.

Republicans are wilier than Obama, who should see that reaching out is for chumps. His recent busted lip, the result of sharp elbows on the basketball court, seemed an apt status report on his presidency.

What did he get for his trips to Capitol Hill, cocktail receptions at his residence, inviting Republicans to watch the Super Bowl at the White House? It’s a wonder his extended arm didn’t break.

Rather than give Republicans another dinner date to turn down, Obama should start playing hard to get.

(Margaret Carlson, author of “Anyone Can Grow Up: How George Bush and I Made It to the White House” and former White House correspondent for Time magazine, is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)

To contact the writer of this column: Margaret Carlson in Washington at mcarlson3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this column: James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net

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