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Obama-Boehner Silent Treatment Puts Freeze on Action in Congress

When President Barack Obama stands in front of House Speaker John Boehner to give his State of the Union address on Jan. 24, it will be the most time the two have spent together since talks on the U.S. debt in July and August.

The president-speaker relationship, the critical nexus for U.S. lawmaking, is now non-existent, said a White House official with direct knowledge. The two leaders, known for forging compromises and making deals, rarely even speak.

“The president regarded Boehner as someone with whom he could do business and vice versa until the breakdown -- for whatever reason -- of the debt limit talks,” said Bill Galston, a domestic policy adviser to former President Bill Clinton who’s now an analyst at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “I don’t think the relationship has ever recovered.”

A Boehner adviser said the speaker has sized up Obama as an ineffective negotiator. The White House official said Boehner has been unwilling to make any deal that would risk alienating his Tea Party-friendly freshmen members. The two officials weren’t authorized to speak on the topic.

While friction between a president and congressional leaders of an opposing party isn’t unusual -- Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, a Democrat, publicly called then-President George W. Bush a “liar” and a “loser” in 2005 -- the distance that has developed between Obama and Boehner stands in contrast to some recent precedents.

Residual Effects

Publicly, Boehner has likened negotiating with the White House to “dealing with a bowl of Jell-O.” Obama complained of being “left at the altar” after negotiations on a multitrillion-dollar deficit reduction plan collapsed. White House advisers said their view that Boehner can’t deliver was reaffirmed by House Republicans’ initial repudiation in December of a deal to extend a payroll tax cut for two months.

As a result of last year’s events, the president’s State of the Union is being prepared with the assumption that any major deal with congressional Republicans is unlikely before the November elections, said the administration official. The White House team has concluded that Boehner’s latitude to deal with them will only shrink once Republicans settle on their candidate to oppose Obama, the official said.

A full-year extension of the payroll tax cut is “essentially the last must-do item of business on the president’s congressional agenda” in 2012, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said in a Dec. 31 briefing.

Limited Contact

Since the debt talks, the president and the speaker have spoken by phone only five times, none of the conversations lasting more than 10 minutes and in one case only 2 minutes, according to a Boehner aide. A congratulatory call between the two on passage of free trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama on Oct. 13 was quickly followed by dueling press statements, with each lecturing the other on their competing jobs plans.

Their only meetings in person have been a brief social encounter at the White House Christmas party and Boehner’s ceremonial duty at the podium when Obama gave a 32-minute address to Congress on his jobs agenda on Sept. 8, said the Boehner aide. That speech was preceded by a rare public spat over scheduling, with Boehner insisting Obama postpone the speech a day.

The departing White House chief of staff, Bill Daley, who dined with Boehner at a Washington steak house when the Obama administration was seeking a deficit deal, hasn’t spoken with Boehner in more than three months, according to a White House official interviewed on Jan. 18.

Public Stances

Publicly, both sides say there is no ill will, while maintaining opposing positions on the agenda ahead.

“The president and the vice president and their staffs are in regular contact with the speaker and the majority leader and their staffs,” Jamie Smith, an administration spokeswoman, said. “The president remains ready and willing to work with Congress to pass legislation that ensures everyone gets a fair shake, a fair shot and pays their fair share.”

Brendan Buck, a Boehner spokesman, said, “The speaker likes the president personally, but simply believes his policies make it harder to create jobs.”

Though Obama and Boehner played a well-publicized round of golf as the deficit talks were getting under way in June, the two have never cultivated a close relationship. Boehner has declined four straight invitations to state dinners at the White House.

Policy and political differences don’t necessarily preclude compromise.

Past Precedents

Republican Ronald Reagan and Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neill clashed publicly over ideological differences while developing an easy private rapport and forging deals such as 1983 agreement to stabilize the Social Security fund.

Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who initially derided Democrat Bill Clinton as a “counterculture McGovernik” and allowed the government to shut down in a 1995 dispute, later worked with the White House to deliver legislative achievements such as a welfare overhaul and a balanced budget deal.

Obama, 50, and Boehner, 62, both face political constraints that Clinton and Gingrich did not.

Gingrich was perceived as the architect of the Republican victories in the 1994 congressional elections that gave his party House control after 40 years in the minority. By contrast, the Republicans first elected in 2010 to regain the House mostly ran on an anti-Washington theme that’s not in harmony with Boehner’s record of compromise.

Political Support

“The really big difference is that, at the beginning and especially over the first year, Gingrich had the affection and strong confidence of the freshmen,” said David Rohde, a political science professor at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. “Boehner doesn’t have the same confidence.”

Clinton also had the benefit of a strong economy that Obama does not. The U.S. unemployment rate was below 6 percent during the two years before Clinton’s re-election in 1996. Leading up to it, House Republicans and Clinton concluded that a series of legislative wins would be a “mutual interest” for their re-election bids, said Dan Meyer, who was chief of staff at the time to Gingrich.

That strategy may have undercut 1996 Republican presidential nominee Robert Dole’s chances. Today, with Obama more vulnerable than Clinton was, “there’s probably not a willingness on the part of congressional Republicans to part company with their nominee,” said Meyer, now a senior vice president at the Duberstein Group, a Washington lobbying firm.

Approval Ratings

The political gridlock displayed in the deficit talks sent the poll ratings of both Obama and congressional Republicans plunging.

Approval ratings of Congress are at historic lows: 13 percent in a Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted Jan. 12-15, and 11 percent in a Dec. 15-18 Gallup poll.

Those sentiments have rubbed off on the leadership. Forty percent of those surveyed by the Pew Research Center said they had an unfavorable view of Boehner. A year ago, 25 percent said they had an unfavorable view. Thirty-nine percent of the 1,502 adults surveyed Jan. 11-16 said they never heard of Boehner or couldn’t rate him.

Obama’s approval rating in the Pew poll was 43 percent, with 48 saying they disapprove of the job he’s doing.

Going into the 2012 election, the president has staked out a populist position as a champion of middle-income Americans confronting Wall Street and an obstructionist Republican Congress. He underscored his new message with a Dec. 6 address in Osawatomie, Kansas, saying the nation is at “a make-or-break moment for the middle class.”

Obama then prevailed against the House Republicans in a December stand-off over the GOP’s efforts to block a two-month extension of a payroll tax cut for workers.

Galston said both sides are now committed to election-year political strategies that make compromise unlikely.

“I think the die is cast,” Galston said.

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