Depending on where you sit, President Obama’s recent and growing outreach to rank and file Republicans is either a major victory for platitudinous calls for leadership or the early stages of a “charm offensive” that will divide Republicans and party leaders, isolate House Republicans, and ultimately provide Obama with the budget “grand bargain” he’s been chasing for two years.
Here’s my own hunch: This is as much about placating DC elites as it is rooted in an earnest belief that Obama can get Rob Portman, Ron Johnson, and others to agree to raise taxes by $600 billion. The idea is — or part of it — that if the effort fails, then critics of his leadership will at long last have to acknowledge that GOP anti-tax absolutism is the irreducible element of budget gridlock in Washington. I don’t think things work this way. For people who believe leadership boils down to backslapping and cajoling, the absence of a deal — any deal — is tautologically evidence that both parties have somehow failed.
But if the “charm offensive” works, it will probably come with a cost to people who want to see Obama sow dissent within the GOP — and, of course, to regular people as well. Obama’s offer to GOP leaders already includes a Social Security benefit cut. Republicans know that. If it were good enough, the deal would’ve been cut by now. This back-channel strategy is how harsher policies like an increase in the Medicare eligibility age re-enter the debate.
Yes, it might ultimately divide the GOP and isolate House Republicans. But that’s probably less important in the end than the fact that Obama is acquiescing to the unchanging nature of the Republican Party. And instead of hoping sequestration will ultimately force the change he wants to see, he’s making one last attempt to end run around its leaders — at an unknown policy cost — before sequestration settles in for real.
Brian Beutler is TPM's senior congressional reporter. Since 2009, he's led coverage of health care reform, Wall Street reform, taxes, the GOP budget, the government shutdown fight, and the debt limit fight. He can be reached at email@example.com.