This is from not-for-attribution interviews with two Republican senators who attended the dinner with the president on Wednesday night at the Jefferson Hotel in Washington.
One was heartened and impressed by the meeting while retaining his skepticism as to whether it might open the way to pronounced progress in pursuit of a so-called grand bargain.
The other was more optimistic and left the meeting moved.
Each independently mentioned one aspect of the conversation that troubled them both: The president, while friendly and forthcoming, seemed to withdraw somewhat when talk turned to continuing the process.
Both senators said that near the end of the two-hour, 20-minute dinner, a senator or senators pressed the president: This has been a good discussion, it’s promising, but we need a plan, a process, so that whatever momentum comes from this talk isn’t squandered.
The Republicans fear that members of the Senate from both parties will not be able to come to serious agreement unless the president is actively involved and puts the prestige of his office behind it.
Senator No. 1: When pressed on the question, the president seemed to step back. “His idea of a process is, ‘You guys figure it out and work with my staff, and if you need me call me.’ But in the end, unless the president really gets engaged and forces meeting after meeting, I don’t see how you get past the logjam.”
He will judge the president’s level of “real sincerity” by this: “Does he follow up?” “If he just takes the standoff attitude—my guess is he’s gotta be smart enough to know that’s not gonna work.”
Senator No. 2: “At the end I mentioned, ‘Share [with us] how you see this going forward.’ ” Here the president “got hazy. . . . I told him this will never work without adult supervision from the White House. I don’t think he comprehends that this is part of getting something done.”
Senator No. 2 said he planned to “press” the president in coming days “to lead, to exert authority.”
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What has been behind President Obama’s reluctance to own and lead negotiations with Congress? Members of his party have taken to conceding that he’s somewhat aloof, doesn’t enjoy the give and take of talking with politicians, tends to prefer the company of family and friends. That is the temperament argument.
Another argument is that nonnegotiating is actually his way of negotiating—drive the other side crazy by withholding involvement and information, talk over Congress’s head to the public.
Both senators said the president, at the dinner, touched on a reason for his uninvolvement.
Senator No. 2: “He’s been under the view that if he gets involved, it poisons something. But no, we want presidential leadership, we want to solve this. . . . He should be the convener.”
Senator No. 1 also used the word “poison” also, which suggests the president himself may have used it.
Here some possibilities arise. One is that the president truly thinks that he’s so personally hated by the Republicans and their base that he feels he damages any effort at progress by seeming to be leading or encouraging it. If he really thinks that, it must be painful on some level. And yet it’s an odd fear. The president just won re-election decisively, and he obviously has a lot of friends and supporters in America. He can move forward and take responsibility, he just has to get around those who really do hate him. But that’s what successful political figures do. They all have people who hate them. Especially presidents. The don’t—they can’t—sit around moaning, “Woe is me, nothing is possible.”
Another possibility is that the president exaggerates in his mind the power of the huge, dark force of the Republican base. (Republican politicians sometimes exaggerate it, too.) This might go under the heading “believing your own propaganda.” Both parties have bases, both bases have darkness within them, but a good portion of both bases would surely like to see Washington function again, see the entitlement crisis eased and the tax code simplified and reformed.
Another possibility is that the president’s claiming he’s poison is just a dodge, a way of subtly putting the onus on his foes: I could help if your team didn’t hate me so unreasonably, but alas they do, so I can do little. And this would be an excuse to continue what appears to me to be his preferred negotiating style, which is the nonnegotiation negotiation: Let them guess where I am, let them guess what I’ll do, I’ll be the calm center while they run around like headless chickens.
My sense: If you really want a grand bargain, that dinner was exactly where you’d make it clear…