How Boehner and Obama Blew a Promising Partnership
Policy + Politics

How Boehner and Obama Blew a Promising Partnership

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For a fleeting moment back in the summer of 2011, it looked as if House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), might try a daredevil political act of historic proportions by joining forces with President Obama to draft a major deficit reduction plan.

Maybe it was his golf match with Obama, or perhaps their secret meetings at the White House, but something had transformed Boehner from Obama critic-in-chief to his principal ally in forging a $4 trillion, ten-year plan to cut Social Security and Medicare and raise taxes which would have eclipsed all previous debt reduction efforts.


But in early July, the chain-smoking Republican began back-peddling, cautioning reporters, “This is a Rubik’s cube we have not worked out yet.”

A deal finally came together at the last minute, but no thanks to Obama and Boehner. By then, their collaboration had soured and it took the eleventh hour intervention of two old friends, Vice President Joe Biden and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), to raise the debt ceiling and avert a first-ever default on government borrowing.

Remarkably, Boehner and Obama never again tried to collaborate on a “Grand Bargain” – or even a not-so-grand deal such as the one now eluding the House and Senate that is needed to prevent the first government shutdown in 17 years from beginning midnight Monday. The once promising partnership between a centrist Democratic president willing to break with liberal dogma and an old-guard Republican Speaker holding impatient conservative Tea Party conservatives at bay dissolved long ago.   

“I think that there is distrust between both leaders and also distrust that either side would have the votes to cut a deal anyway,” Ron Bonjean, a former House Republican spokesman and strategist, said yesterday. “So the situation has devolved for both President Obama and Speaker Boehner to one of really drumming up support among their bases and trying to out-position each other.”

Indeed, Obama played another round of golf on Saturday as the government teetered on the brink of a shutdown that would furlough more than 800,000 federal workers – but it wasn’t with the beleaguered House Speaker.

Instead of meeting with Obama and other bi-partisan Congressional leaders to try to hammer out a compromise solution, Boehner worked with his fractious House Republicans to cobble together another version of a continuing resolution that they knew would be rejected by the Senate and the president.

The latest CR would keep the doors of the government open through Dec. 15, provided Obamacare is delayed for another year and a 2 percent sales tax on medical devices designed to raise $30 billion for the health care program in the coming decade is repealed.   

Even before the House completed its work early Sunday morning, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) declared the measure would be dead on arrival in the Senate today.

Boehner, of course, had little choice but go along with this fruitless gambit or risk a rebellion of 40 or more Tea Party activists in his caucus who are in the thrall of firebrand Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and determined to derail Obamacare at any cost.

Boehner may opt for a more conciliatory approach to the Democrats after the Senate votes today, although he would risk infuriating conservatives and putting his speakership on the line. But if he does, it won’t be because of some last-minute behind the scenes consultation with Obama, his erstwhile friend.

Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University, said yesterday that he thought there was less to the relationship between the president and speaker than met the eye in early 2011.

“When they first got together for that golf game back in 2011, Boehner said to the president, this is a golf game, let’s not talk politics,” Baker said. “So it was a very nice symbolic show of institutional cordiality, but it was hardly a manifestation of a budding friendship.”

“I don’t think there was ever a particularly auspicious beginning, and I think what’s happened is that events have caused things to take a downward death spiral, which of course has very serious implications for the economy and for the standing of the United States in the eyes of the world.”

The collapse of the 2011 talks were marked by acrimony and finger pointing.  


Boehner publicly charged that Obama went back on a tentative deal by demanding hundreds of billions of dollars in additional tax revenue at the behest of liberals and deficit hawks.  The White House, in turn, complained that Boehner overreacted to Obama’s bargaining tactics and abruptly backed out of the deal after feeling intense heat from unhappy conservatives in his conference who didn’t want to raise taxes.

“It’s hard to understand why Speaker Boehner would walk away from this kind of deal,” Obama said at the time. But Boehner countered that it was the president who had walked away from an agreement on revenue increases.

“The White House moved the goal posts,” Boehner said in a press conference, demanding “more money at the last minute — and the only way to get that extra revenue was to raise taxes.”

Since then, Obama and Boehner have largely communicated long distance – frequently with stinging sound bites or public pronouncements.

Increasingly, the president has portrayed Boehner as the leader of a band of political extortionists and anarchists who are threatening to “blow up the economy,” shut down the government and force a default on U.S. borrowing--all in a futile bid to destroy the 2010 Affordable Care Act. Boehner, in return, has accused Obama of arrogantly plunging ahead with a highly flawed health care law that will kill jobs, impose new taxes and jack up insurance rates – all to the detriment of average Americans.

Michael Steel, Boehner’s spokesman, insists that the estrangement between the two leaders has less to do with hard feelings than Boehner’s decision after 2011 to abandon back channel negotiating and return to a more traditional legislative approach.

“It has nothing to do with emotional reactions,” Steel said. “The speaker’s preference has been and remains to proceed in ‘regular order.’  That means the House passes a bill, the Senate passes a bill, we go to conference and resolve the differences. And then it goes to the President’s desk for his signature.”

In light of the House Republicans’ aversion to negotiating with the Senate over the budget, farm legislation, food stamps and immigration, that explanation strains credulity.

But for whatever reasons, meetings or conversations between Boehner and Obama are few and far between. The last time the two men spoke – on Sept. 20 -- Obama phoned Boehner to tell him he will not negotiate with Republicans on the debt ceiling, according to a readout provided by the Speaker’s office. Boehner told the president he was “disappointed” to hear his position, according to an aide.