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In Washington's Fiscal Tango, Obama's Lacking A Dance Partner

President Obama speaks about the Affordable Care Act on Thursday in Largo, Md. In the latest fiscal fight with Republicans, the president is lacking a partner to make a deal with — or even to vilify.
Pablo Martinez Monsivais
President Obama speaks about the Affordable Care Act on Thursday in Largo, Md. In the latest fiscal fight with Republicans, the president is lacking a partner to make a deal with — or even to vilify.

Top White House aides constantly refer to a "civil war" in the Republican Party.

They sometimes use the phrase with near delight, reveling in the tensions that threaten to pull apart the GOP. But for President Obama, the divided opposition creates a major problem: He has neither a partner to cut a deal with nor a high-profile adversary to vilify.

That situation stands in stark contrast to previous fiscal standoffs.

In the summer of 2011, Obama and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, spent long hours negotiating a deal to raise the debt ceiling in exchange for spending cuts. At the end of last year, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Vice President Biden swept in at the last second to avert the fiscal cliff.

Today, as another crisis unfolds, Democrats have nobody on the other side willing to dance with them.

"The problem is that the Republicans have no incentive to go to solutions," says Democratic consultant Jefrey Pollock. "They feel like any whiff of compromise means a Republican primary or a right-wing, Tea Party primary."

That's a lesson McConnell is learning, as a primary challenger back in Kentucky accuses him of being too comfortable with Washington's tried-and-true ways of doing business.

Republican strategist Rick Wilson says that shoves the potential for a deal out of the frame.

"Voters in his state, in his party, do not want him to play the Washington game of 'go along to get along' and 'let's make a deal' and all the usual ways it used to be done," Wilson says.

That instability within the Republican Party creates unexpected eddies of power and weakness. And Democrats used to cutting deals with the GOP can be left foundering.

"Voters think — you have the presidency; you have the Senate. Why can't you get something done?" says Democratic pollster Celinda Lake.

It might help if Obama could point at a single person to blame on the other side — identify a high-profile villain or an adversary to demonize.

"Successful presidents are defined in part by their enemies," says presidential historian Richard Norton Smith. "[For] Andrew Jackson, it was the Bank of the United States. [Theodore Roosevelt], it was the 'malefactors of wealth.' Ronald Reagan, it was the 'evil empire.' This president — it isn't that he has lacked for enemies. But I think he's been very reluctant to ... play that game."

During campaigns, Obama had no trouble playing that game. In 2012, he successfully portrayed Mitt Romney as the big bad wolf of capitalism. In 2010, he warned about the dire consequences of giving Republicans the keys to the car they had driven into a ditch. But Obama has run his last race, and now the White House is conspicuously holding back from obvious lines of attack.

During a White House briefing on the day that Sen. Ted Cruz ended his 21-hour Senate talkathon, White House spokesman Jay Carney repeatedly passed up chances to take a whack at the Republican from Texas.

"Did the president catch any of the 21 hours plus of the speech by Sen. Cruz?" Carney was asked.

"I don't believe so," he replied.

Then the follow-up: "Does the White House have any reaction to the speech? Did you watch it?"

"I did not. I certainly read about it," Carney said.

Variations on the Cruz question came up several times. In responding, Carney never even mentioned the senator's name.

Wilson, the Republican strategist, says that may be a smart decision.

"If he did get in a fight with a Ted Cruz or a Rand Paul, he boosts their stature. He boosts their image," Wilson says. "And, frankly, he fires up more Republicans."

But by taking a pass, Obama misses an opportunity to craft a simple narrative with a hero and a villain.

Through all of this, the president's poll numbers have been sinking. They're now at their lowest point in two years. Then again, when Obama was negotiating with Republicans in Congress two years ago, his numbers were even lower.

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Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.