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July 26, 2011 8:00 AM Obama, Boehner ‘going mano-a-mano’

By Steve Benen

After delivering a response to President Obama’s address on the debt-ceiling crisis, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) was overheard saying, “I didn’t sign up for going mano-a-mano with the president of the United States.” CBS News added, “His remark was dry in tone, and it was followed by silence as walked down the marble stairs and left the Capitol.”

Whether Boehner signed up for this or not, the crisis the Speaker and his caucus created have led us to this point. The question now is whether the national addresses made any difference.

When I was taking notes during the president’s remarks, I noticed that he barely laid a glove on Republicans who no doubt deserve some rhetorical jabs. But it occurred to me later that this was intentional — Obama’s intended audience was the center, and his goal was to look like The Last Grown-Up in Washington.

To this extent, the speech was a success. Obama positioned himself as the one eager to take popular, responsible steps, struggling with a radicalized GOP that refuses to listen to reason.

David Gergen told CNN viewers the president’s speech was “partisan.” That’s demonstrably ridiculous — Obama told Americans that “neither party is blameless”; he emphasized the similarity between his agenda and Reagan’s; and he spoke at length about the necessity and virtue of “compromise.” As E.J. Dionne Jr. put it, “President Obama made clear tonight that the debate over the debt ceiling is not left vs. right. It’s center vs. right. There was nothing remotely ‘left’ in this speech, unless you count higher taxes for corporate jet owners and a few other populist bits.”

Perhaps the most notable part of the speech was the president urging the public to actually do something about their frustrations.

“The American people may have voted for divided government, but they didn’t vote for a dysfunctional government. So I’m asking you all to make your voice heard. If you want a balanced approach to reducing the deficit, let your member of Congress know. If you believe we can solve this problem through compromise, send that message.”

It was, as best as I can recall, the first time Obama has made this sort of call to action in a national speech. The preliminary reports are encouraging: the public responded last night, crashing congressional web servers and phone lines.

For the most hard-line conservatives, public pressure is irrelevant. But for GOP members who are on the fence, and are perhaps worried about their re-election prospects in a competitive district, could a sudden flood of calls, letters, emails, and faxes move a few House votes? Absolutely.

But perhaps the most striking thing about last night wasn’t the president’s speech itself; it was the comparison between his remarks and the Speaker’s. Obama told Americans:

“I realize that a lot of the new members of Congress and I don’t see eye-to-eye on many issues. But we were each elected by some of the same Americans for some of the same reasons. Yes, many want government to start living within its means. And many are fed up with a system in which the deck seems stacked against middle-class Americans in favor of the wealthiest few. But do you know what people are fed up with most of all? They’re fed up with a town where compromise has become a dirty word.”

A few minutes later, Boehner, who isn’t even comfortable saying the word “compromise” out loud, proceeded to tell the public he doesn’t want to compromise. It was as if the Speaker was deliberately trying to prove the president right.

With this in mind, the two speeches helped capture the larger debate perfectly: one side is aiming for the middle, is willing to make concessions, and is eager to find a compromise. The other side is aiming for the right, sees no need for concessions, and defines “compromise” as “getting everything I want.”

Once the two addresses were complete, was there any evidence to suggest an agreement will come together over the next week? If there was, I didn’t see it.

Steve Benen is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly, joining the publication in August, 2008 as chief blogger for the Washington Monthly blog, Political Animal.

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  • FRP on July 26, 2011 8:09 AM:

    It is like watching a sick parent or elderly friend weaken , sicken , fail , then die . The five stages of grief indeed .
    The begging this time of course isn't to some spaghetti monster in the sky , but to a more powerful starchy awesomeness , Sociopaths .

  • c u n d gulag on July 26, 2011 8:09 AM:

    Obama was very measured.
    Very adult.
    Holding back anger.
    I liked the 'Call your Congressman' line, to put pressure on ‘em’. I can see a bunch of them sitting there and cringing. I would include the Teabagging eye doctor who’s my new Congresssh*ithead. I’ll be calling her office to talk to one of the idiots there.

    I’ll be issuing another “Debt Threat.” I'll enunciate very carefully.

    I do wish he’d mentioned that Congress has a few days, or else he may have to use the 14th Amendment, and explained the rational. But then, maybe that would have taken the pressure off of the Housesh*theads.

    I tried to watch the rebuttal, but the moment Speaker Orancicle started to talk, I went back to reading a novel.
    The only reason to watch him is that he sometimes looks like he’s on the edge of a nervous breakdown. I was hoping he’d have one last night, and start crying, and pull out a little hip-take a nip, look into the camera, and start kvetching about Cantor and the Teabaggers.

  • Burr Deming on July 26, 2011 8:12 AM:

    The Speaker can't compromise. He is a captive of a party in decline. It is not by design, it will be a technologically based demise.

  • Danp on July 26, 2011 8:13 AM:

    Obama’s intended audience was the center, and his goal was to look like The Last Grown-Up in Washington.

    It was the wrong goal. He should have used the speech to prove that Republicans were both intransigent and completely at odds with humanity. He could have said something like this:

    "Corp jet depreciation schedules do not create jobs, and yet this is where Republicans draw a line in the sand. Low income tax marginal rates for hedge fund managers do not improve the nature of the economy, but these are the “small businesses” that Republicans keep referring to when they oppose any tax increases. Gas prices are not high because of low profits by oil companies, and oil subsidies do not cause oil companies to search for oil in remote locations. Profits do, and oil companies are very profitable even without subsidies.

    If people are not buying goods, businesses are not hiring people. If they are buying, business owners make more money, even after paying a slightly higher percentage in taxes. These simple facts are not even debatable."

  • bignose on July 26, 2011 8:13 AM:

    The petulant GOP have boxed themselves in. The lacked the pragmatism to jump over the rhetorical gap when they had the chance, and now, finding themselves painted so far into the corner, they have simply turned to face it.

  • Brenna on July 26, 2011 8:18 AM:

    I've completely lost faith in this president. I think he's selling us out, not fighting for us, and I think a complete capitulation, and NOT the 14th Amendment, is what we'll be served up.

    I think the bad guys are gonna win this fight. And I believe Obama set it all up, maybe not intentionally, but it certainly wasn't well thought out. I want to believe in this guy, but I just can't right now.

    I emailed my republican congressman this morning. We just bought a house, a short sell, and now waiting for the long bank process. We're about to put our existing house on the market. This may all fall through now.

    Just utterly disappointing.

  • Live Free or Die on July 26, 2011 8:21 AM:

    The problem is that Republican will get everything they want, and then the Americans will forget next year who caused the problem. Surrender=Reasonable. Americans are dumb. After Rove and Koch repeatedly accuse him of destroying Medicare, dumb Americans will blame Obama for the shitty job situation. Look, I'm a moderate libertarian who voted for Obama, and he this is getting me upset. Obama looks weak when he is begging the Americans to call people who dont give a shit. I will still vote for him.

  • RD Padouk on July 26, 2011 8:24 AM:

    Rubin has asserted there was a bi-partisan deal between Boehner, Pelosi, and Reid - but Obama sank it because it was a two-step approach. I cannot believe that Pelosi and Reid would agree to something that the President has so consistently opposed, but it seems to be gaining steam.

  • Sheldon on July 26, 2011 8:25 AM:

    I thought that speech was a appalling waste of time. Not a single new thought in it, no suggestion for moving the ball forward, no line in the sand. And the delivery was Obama at his worst. He had on a slight smile through most of the speech - about the worse body language possible given our situation. He should have been pounding the podium. Instead we got platitudes and bizarre uplift. Whoever is advising Obama ought to be fired on the spot. And Obama himself seems to lack even a subatomic particle of leadership quality. For this speech you demanded air time? One of the most inept leaders ever, at a time when the principles of the Democratic Party need a vigorous champion. And he will almost certainly lose next year, and we will enter permanent decline under a radical Republican Party. Needless to say, Boehner sounded like a kook. What a sad moment in American history, and Obama deserves a huge amount of the blame. President Pushover, as Krugman rightly named him.

  • SteveT on July 26, 2011 8:26 AM:

    The Republicans are the parents who believe in faith healing, who would let their child die of something easily cured rather than commit the sin of using modern medicine. The Republicans, like the faith healing parents, are True Believers who won't be swayed by facts.

    We're heading toward one of two economic catastrophes, either:

    a) nothing happens and the country's credit rating is lowered, or

    b) Democrats reach a compromise that is acceptable to enough Republicans to pass, in which case or unemployment rate shoots up over ten percent.

    The only hope to avoid either of these fates is for Obama to use the 14th Amendment to forestall this crisis. The rub (other than Obama's reluctance to do anything that doesn't have the approval of two-thirds of Americans in polls) is that he has to do it before our credit rating is raised. There's no guarantee that the rating agencies will with until 11:59 p.m. on August 2 to do it.

    Has anyone calculated how much the deficit would go up if the country's credit rating was downgraded to double-A? To single-A?

  • Danp on July 26, 2011 8:27 AM:

    The 14th ammendment is just a red herring here, regardless of its legality. The Republicans control the appropriations process now. They can starve government with or without any agreement. Their goal is to force Dems to "agree" to a "compromise" so that the blame for destroying our safety nets is shared. Dem's goal is to save the economy and the system of safety nets, while being fiscally responsible. Republicans chose the field of battle. Obama accepted it. And the media pretends that only an agreement can allow us to pay our bills.

  • Live Free or Die on July 26, 2011 8:27 AM:

    I did not like the President’s speech. He said that we have to cut spending to grow the economy. This is untrue. He looked weak. He pleaded with Americans to call Congress. He forgot that Republicans do not care about popularity. And who exactly is “Washington”? To the average American that means both sides. And what is this “we” ran up the debt stuff? Why does he have such a hard time uttering the word Republican? Horrific. And why is he talking about a balanced approach, when he supports the Reid plan?
    If he agrees to the whole two-step process he will be stuck in Washington next year talking about the deficit, while Mitt will be in swing states bashing him on jobs. Meanwhile the GOP will drag out the next round for another 7-8 months. If he dares move an inch outside of DC to campaign, he will be attacked relentlessly for putting his election ahead of the emergency created by the GOP. Brilliant. What has he been doing for the past few months? Not talking about jobs or creating them, but tied up with the leadership of the GOP. What will be doing next year? The same thing. And why would the GOP do anything differently next year, when they got everything they want? Obama looks reasonable; The GOP gets everything they want. Bush could have never pulled this off.
    Obama’s original sin was hiring Geitner. Every bad idea has come from him. Every negotiation he has been involved in has ended in failure. When it was discovered that Geitner did not pay his taxes, it should have been a sign to Obama. If Geitner would have been advising Obama on OBL, he would have advised against the kill, and it would have leaked out anyway. Obama would have his own Tora Bora. This man needs to go.

  • Kenneth D. Franks on July 26, 2011 8:29 AM:

    I didn't see any evidence that there was any way to compromise by what Boehner said. The President has given enough that he should get some short term debt ceiling increases. That is better than letting the system blow up. He should take what he can get, start bring troops home, resume campaigning for reelection, and after he wins make sure the Bush tax cuts expire. We can't afford constant hostage taking so hopefully the house won't have so many radicals willing to take the country off the cliff after the 2012 elections. http://kennethdfranks.blogspot.com./

  • j on July 26, 2011 8:29 AM:

    The news from CNN during the speech that the republican plan would result in a downgrade of the US credit rating could not have come at a worse time for the republicans, Obama has a pretty good reason for a veto on the repub plan!

  • jlt on July 26, 2011 8:31 AM:

    You can be sure that the voter will remember and be reminded of the childish destructive behavior of the rabid right!

    The World is disgusted by the actions of the congressional right...as are Americans..call them 1.866.311.3405!

    Blast them daily...hourly...crash their emails and the switchboard! Contact their local offices...Get active...Please do not confine your action to complaining on the internet!

  • Live Free or Die on July 26, 2011 8:32 AM:

    Another thing. The GOP represents 25% of the combines legislative and executive branches. How is it that 25% get 100% of what it wants. Obama will be unable to talk about jobs next year, because he will be handcuffed to the debt ceiling.

  • bigtuna on July 26, 2011 8:32 AM:

    Some of the economic/business reporters I listen to are starting to use language to describe the so called Republican plan, and their notions about how defaulting won't be a big deal, etc., for what it is - "asinine", "ridiculous" "absurd".

    Now if only the MSM would listen to what the economic folks are saying ...

    Of course, the irony, and there are many, is that republicans kept harping on how important certainity is for "the markets". IF ever there was a time when they have created uncertainity, this is it

  • blondie on July 26, 2011 8:37 AM:

    For those disappointed in the President's speech (and in some ways I consider myself one of them) - we weren't the audience.

    The audience was the vast unplugged "middle," the people who haven't been paying attention until now. Like my BIL - he hasn't followed the fight at all, and until Obama spoke last night he pretty much believed the fault lay on both sides. Now BIL is fuming at House Republicans.

  • DisgustedWithItAll on July 26, 2011 8:53 AM:

    c u n d gulag: You must be in Bowling Green, heh? Cheers from Louisville.

  • JoanneinDenver on July 26, 2011 9:10 AM:

    I cringed when the President urged people to call their Congress delegation. The Republicans are past masters at bombarding Congress. Limbaugh brags that he can have his audience "crash" the Congressional websites and the Congressional switchboards anytime he wants and from time to time proves it. I don't know if the traffic last night on these sites was from the Democrats or the right wing.

    I am so afraid that it is way too late for the Democratic Party to develop any kind of strategy. For two and half years, the Democratic Party has belittled and made fun of the opposition. Now the last laugh is the Tea Party's.

  • Kathryn on July 26, 2011 9:29 AM:

    Agree with blondie, we weren't the audience. People who don't follow this stuff (90% plus) respond to to statement about voting for divided government, not dysfunctional government. Added bonus, it's true. Not my favorite speech either but subtly effective.

  • Josef K on July 26, 2011 9:38 AM:

    I really wonder if either the President or his party understand that not every American has a large investment portfolio, never mind how the incipent default will affect their constituents.

    I likewise wonder how many Congressional member's offices will end up vandalized when the wheels come off.

  • Michael on July 26, 2011 9:43 AM:

    I'm considering investing in a few bags of feathers and a big pot full of hot tar, and maybe a few 2x4s for rails.

  • Diane Rodriguez on July 26, 2011 10:20 AM:

    What I heard in the address was the President trying to provide John Boehner with cover and distance from the TP caucus. He pointed out they were intransigent and unwilling to engage in governance. After Boehner's painful nattering I expected Cantor to zoom out in a clown car to pick him up and whisk him off stage.

    Every progressive was dissappointed in President Obama's speech. I concur with others that we were not the audience. I also believe that trying to work with a bunch of irrational ideologues who hate you doesn't result in effective governance. Short of Divine intervention or Kryptonite???? We have one of the smartest guys on the planet in the White House not so in the 2 Houses of Congress. I vent like everyone else but it has been sledge hammered home that the country is becoming ever more ungovernable.

  • DisgustedWithItAll on July 26, 2011 10:32 AM:

    What I heard was Obama being a wuss. Not providing Boehner with political cover, which is what some ABC News political director says was doing. Too clever by half, and if the White House doesn't understand that isn't going to work, then we're really in deep shit. Which I think we are because I'm beginning to think Obama has no intention of taking the 14th. Because people are so damned ignorant, Obama will be blamed for it not only because the Republicans will be successful in using their microphones but because Democrats will just sit there with their mouths shut.

    Democrats invite contempt and scorn with their incessant milquetoast inclinations. And they deserve it.

  • Art on July 26, 2011 11:44 AM:

    Has anyone followed up on the claim that Boehner cleared his speech with Limbaugh before he went on the air?

  • Stephen Stralka on July 26, 2011 12:19 PM:

    You don't really need 11th dimensional chess to see the strategy here. Regular old 3D chess will do.

    If you've got a pawn attacking your queen, that is what you have to worry about. There might be a rook threatening your knight on the other side of the board, but if you don't save your queen that's the least of your worries.

    So you look at different courses of action, and you ask yourself how your opponent is going to respond to each one, and then you consider how you would respond to each of those responses. This quickly leads to a gigantic number of permutations, but fortunately you can ignore most of them. For instance, if your opponent responds by exposing his king at some point, allowing you to checkmate him, you're not going to complain about that.

    So if Obama is playing chess here, one basic question that he has to consider before every move he makes is whether there is any possibility at all that the House Republicans are going to compromise.

    It's amazing how many smart people keep forgetting that everything hinges on this. If there is zero possibility that the Republicans are ever going to compromise with Obama, then his strategy makes perfect sense. However grotesque some of the concessions he's been willing to make might be, there's no harm done if none of them are accepted.

    And he categorically ruled out Boehner's latest proposal, which is just the same hostage crisis split in two, and he still has the 14th Amendment in his back pocket. So if his strategy at this point is to wait and see if the Republicans fold, but prepare to take the 14th at the first sign of a real panic in the markets, that really wouldn't be a bad strategy.

    So they impeach him. They want to set up this great big ongoing media circus with Barack Obama as the star of the show, let them. They'd be giving him an international platform to explain in exhausting detail why we was forced to act to save the country from their recklessness.

    (But if that's not his strategy, yes, I agree, he's either a Republican or an idiot.)

  • DavidG on July 26, 2011 6:21 PM:

    Your post should have been titled,

    Obama Versus Boehner: Mano a Guano.

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