The President Who Wants It All


The essence of bipartisan deals is win-win: Both sides are satisfied. Obama’s approach is he alone wins.

President George W. Bush made bipartisan deals with Democrats on education, energy and, shortly before leaving office, the bank bailout known as TARP. President Reagan got together with Democrats on tax reform and Social Security. President Clinton reached agreement with Republicans on welfare reform, balancing the budget and Nafta’s free trade. Mr. Clinton also negotiated reform of Social Security, a landmark compromise that died (before being announced) when the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke.

“Each president defined these deals as success, as principled compromises,”Keith Hennessey, Mr. Bush’s chief domestic policy adviser, noted recently, “and both parties shared the credit.”

Not so the stopgap bill signed Tuesday by President Obama to avert the fiscal cliff and spare most taxpayers from paying income taxes at a higher rate. It left Republicans despondent, Democrats not quite thrilled, and represented Mr. Obama’s latest failure to achieve a major bipartisan agreement. It fell short, he said, of “my preference” for “a larger agreement, a bigger deal, a grand bargain.”

Indeed, it fell way, way short.

For that, Mr. Obama has mainly himself to blame. He faults congressional Republicans for his inability to achieve the impressive compromises that other presidents attained. But the biggest hindrance to a bipartisan breakthrough has been the president’s own style in dealing with the GOP opposition.

Unlike prior presidents, Mr. Obama doesn’t believe he is obligated personally to bring about a compromise. Over the past 18 months, he hosted meetings with Republican leaders and had numerous one-on-one conversations with House Speaker John Boehner—all for naught. Much of the serious negotiating is left to subordinates. He skipped the final talks on the fiscal-cliff deal, only to appear on television to inform “members of both parties” in Congress that he and the American people were anxiously awaiting a last-minute accord—as if he were as uninvolved in the budget wrangling as the public.

After the 2010 election, Vice President Joe Biden and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell worked out a deal on taxes and spending. In 2011, Mr. Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid picked up the pieces after a debt-limit compromise sought by Mr. Obama failed to materialize. This week, it was Messrs. Biden and McConnell again who were called on to produce an agreement.

The president devoted weeks to unproductive talks with Mr. Boehner and Republican leaders in 2011 over a $4 trillion grand bargain on taxes and spending. “He views it that if he has extensive debate then he’d fulfilled his only obligation,” a Republican engaged in the talks said. “Every day we got further away from a deal.” Nonetheless, Mr. Obama boasted of having devoted more time than any previous president to such discussions.

An even bigger impediment is the president’s predilection for stepping up his demands just as a compromise appears possible. After Mr. Boehner agreed to $800 billion in new tax revenues in 2011, Mr. Obama suddenly called for $400 billion more. This instantly killed a potential grand bargain and deepened Republican distrust of the president.

Republicans, ever hopeful, were optimistic about a deal with the White House after Mr. Obama’s re-election two months ago. Mr. Boehner had announced his willingness to raise taxes, and progress was being made in negotiations. But after Thanksgiving, the president sent Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner to Capitol Hill with sharply heightened demands. When Mr. McConnell heard them, he laughed out loud.

On Capitol Hill, the normal practice in seeking a compromise is to woo the other party and recruit prominent allies. Mr. Bush lined up the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy as his chief Democratic ally to pass the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001. Mr. Clinton and Trent Lott, then Senate majority leader, agreed on a balanced-budget bill in 1997. Reagan, facing a lopsided Democratic House majority in 1981, drummed up enough conservative and moderate Democrats to enact his tax and spending bills.

Mr. Obama has turned this practice on its head. He is strikingly un-conciliatory. While his aides negotiated in recent weeks, he attacked Republicans in stump speeches—well after the end of his election campaign. He dismissed their pleas for spending cuts and claimed that their chief interest was in helping the rich avoid higher taxes. With the talks at a critical stage last weekend, he staged a White House event at which he mocked Republicans for thinking he might forgo additional tax increases for millionaires and “companies with a lot of lobbyists” in 2013.

Having failed to cultivate Republican allies in Congress, Mr. Obama finds himself without any, even among GOP senators with whom he had friendly relations as a senator from 2004 to 2008. Now Republicans regard him as partisan in the extreme.

His abrupt reversals have made compromise almost impossible. The initial budget negotiations in 2011 were headed by Mr. Biden, an experienced deal maker from his decades in the Senate. Faced with disagreements on spending items, he was inclined to split the difference. Mr. Obama isn’t so inclined. When he took over the talks, Republicans discovered that billions in Biden-approved cuts had vanished.

It was support by the Senate “gang of six” for $1.2 trillion in taxes—a third more than Mr. Obama had agreed to—that prompted him to up the ante with Mr. Boehner. The president feared the political embarrassment of being outbid on taxes by a rump Senate group that included three Republicans. His sudden demand for more tax revenues snuffed out any chance of a deal with Republicans.

Mr. Obama’s post-Thanksgiving insistence on new concessions by Republicans had the same effect. He wanted a new stimulus of $50 billion the first year and $25 billion in the subsequent years, another housing-finance program and still-higher taxes. Negotiations soon petered out, leading to the scaled-backed legislation that cleared Congress on Tuesday.

It was not a happy ending for Mr. Obama or Republicans. The president barred significant spending cuts in the stopgap bill, further alienating Republicans and worsening the poisonous political climate in Washington as he begins his second term.

This is a bigger problem than Mr. Obama may imagine. The most important issues—the debt ceiling, entitlement reform, tax reform, government spending, the $110 billion sequester—now must be dealt with in an atmosphere that is hardly conducive to bipartisanship and compromise.

The essence of bipartisan deals is win-win: Both sides are satisfied, even if not elated. Mr. Obama’s approach is that he alone gets to win. The approach worked, more or less, on the fiscal-cliff deal, but it won’t produce the larger bipartisan agreements that Mr. Obama now needs. And he’ll miss the opportunities that other presidents seized, to their own benefit and the country’s.

Mr. Barnes, executive editor of the Weekly Standard.

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