“When I came into office, my working assumption was that because we were in crisis, and the crisis had begun on the Republicans’ watch, that there would be a window in which they would feel obliged to cooperate on a common effort to dig us out of this massive hole. The moment in which I realized that Republican leadership intended to take a different tack was actually as we were shaping the stimulus bill, and I vividly remember having prepared a basic proposal that had a variety of components: tax cuts, funding for the states so that teachers and firefighters wouldn’t be laid off, an infrastructure component, and so forth. We felt that as an opening proposal it was ambitious but needed, and that we would begin negotiations with the Republicans and they would show us things that they thought also needed to happen.
On the drive up to Capitol Hill to meet with the House Republican Caucus, John Boehner released a press statement saying that they were opposed to the stimulus. At that point we didn’t even actually have a stimulus bill drawn up, and we hadn’t meant to talk about it. It was a calculation based on what turned out to be pretty smart politics but really bad for the country: If they cooperated with me, then that would validate our efforts. If they were able to maintain uniform opposition to whatever I proposed, that would send a signal to the public of gridlock and dysfunction, and that would help them win seats in the midterm. They pursued that strategy with great discipline.
Typically, what would happen, certainly at the outset, would be that I would say, ‘We got a big problem, we’re losing 800,000 jobs a month. Every economist I’ve talked to—including Republican economists — thinks that we need to do a big stimulus, and I’m willing to work with you to figure out how this package looks.’ And typically, what you’d get would be, ‘Well, Mr. President, I’m not sure that this big-spending approach is the right one, and families are tightening their belts right now, and I don’t hear a lot of my constituents saying that they want a bunch of big bureaucracies taking their hard-earned tax money and wasting it on a bunch of make-work projects around the country. So we think that government’s got to do that same thing that families do.’ So, you kind of hit that ideological wall. I’m sure that after about four or five of those sessions, at some point, I might have said, ‘Look, guys, we have a history here dating back to the Great Depression,’ and I might at that point have tried to introduce some strong policy arguments. What I can say unequivocally is that there has never been a time in which I did not say, ‘Look, you tell me how you want to do this. Give me a sense of how you want to approach it.’
I think if you talk to somebody like a John Boehner, he’ll acknowledge that I’m pretty good at maintaining both my calm and my good humor in these meetings. I get along well with John, and Mitch [McConnell] is a little bit more close to the vest. It’s convenient for them to present those personal interactions as the basis for why things don’t happen, but the problem hasn’t been personal interactions. The conversations I have privately with Republicans are always very different than the public presentations that are made of them.
Even when their leadership wanted to cooperate, the tenor of the Republican base had shifted in a way that made it very difficult for them to cooperate without paying a price internally. Probably the best signifier of that was when Chicago had the bid for the 2016 Olympics and a committee had flown to Copenhagen to make their presentation. On the flight back, we already know that we haven’t gotten it, and when I land it turns out that there was big cheering by Rush Limbaugh and various Republican factions that America had lost.
It was really strange. But at that point, Limbaugh had been much clearer about wanting to see me fail, and he had, I think, communicated that very clearly to his listeners. Fox News coverage had already started to drift in that direction. By then, you realized that the attitudes that Sarah Palin had captured during the election were increasingly representative of the Republican-activist base. They may not have been representative of Republicans across the country, but John Boehner and Mitch McConnell had to worry about that mood. It’s pretty hard for them to publicly say, ‘Obama’s a perfectly reasonable guy, but we just can’t work with him because our base thinks he’s the Antichrist.’ It’s a lot easier for them to say, ‘Oh, the guy’s not listening to us,’ or ‘He’s uncompromising.’
As a consequence, there were times that I would meet with Mitch McConnell and he would say to me very bluntly, ‘Look, I’m doing you a favor if I do any deal with you, so it should be entirely on my terms because it hurts me just being seen photographed with you.’ Other times I’d tease them about it and say, ‘Look, if you need some help — me attacking you, or, you know …’ During the health-care debate, there was a point in time where, after having had multiple negotiations with [Iowa senator Chuck] Grassley, who was the ranking member alongside my current Chinese ambassador, [Max] Baucus, in exasperation I finally just said to Grassley, ‘Is there any form of health-care reform that you can support?’ And he shrugged and looked a little sheepish and said, ‘Probably not.’
I see a straight line from the announcement of Sarah Palin as the 2008 vice-presidential nominee to what we see today in Donald Trump. There have been times when I’ve said confidently that the fever is going to have to break, but it just seems to get worse. And so, for Democrats, it’s important to understand that whether we are able to achieve certain policy objectives is going to be primarily dependent on how many votes we’ve got in each chamber and our ability to move public opinion. It is not going to be as dependent on classic deal-making between Democrats and Republicans, or on my or subsequent presidents’ playing enough golf or drinking enough Scotch with members.
I have very cordial relations with a lot of the Republican members. We can have really great conversations and arrive at a meeting of the minds on a range of policy issues. But if they think they’re going to lose seats — or their own seat — because the social media has declared that they sold out the Republican Party, then they won’t do it. For the individual member of Congress in a 60 percent Republican district in Oklahoma or Arkansas, what matters is that all his or her constituencies are watching Fox News and listening to Rush, and they’re going to pay a price if they’re seen as being too cozy with a Democratic president.”
[Full Transcript: Barack Obama on 5 Days That Shaped His Presidency]