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Eric Cantor’s America

The House majority leader is trying to stop the U.S. government in its tracks. And so far, he’s doing a pretty effective job.

On a stormy evening in early September, a couple of hours before Barack Obama would present his new jobs plan to a joint session of Congress, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor was huddled in his Capitol office with a handful of aides, kicking around a question: Why does the president seem to hate him so much?

Various theories were floated. John Murray, Cantor’s deputy chief of staff, argued that it had something to do with his boss’s eloquence. “Eric articulates very strongly and aggressively a principled stance that’s conservative,” he said, “and they don’t like that.” Cantor himself chalked it up to basic political differences. “I think his view of the economy and how to fix it is so removed from reality,” he said, “and it’s just theory that may work in the classroom, but it does not work, according to my experience.”

Eventually, Brad Dayspring, Cantor’s communications director, weighed in. The president, Dayspring offered, “tends to personalize these policy disputes, it seems to me as an observer.”

Cantor turned to Dayspring and smiled. “I think, as an observer that you are, that’s probably a pretty astute observation.”

Of course, the most compelling explanation for the president’s animus toward the House majority leader is also the simplest: No one in Washington has done more to disrupt Obama’s first term—and threaten his chance at a second—than Cantor. The two men have clashed from the start. It was only three days after Obama’s inauguration that Cantor came to a White House meeting on the economic crisis and proceeded to hand out copies of the Republican plan to fix it—which Obama quickly dismissed. “Elections have consequences,” the president reportedly told Cantor, “and, Eric, I won.” A month later, at a White House fiscal-responsibility summit, Obama pledged to continue reaching out to Republicans because he was “a glutton for punishment” and then singled out the Virginia congressman for particular opprobrium: “I’m going to keep on talking to Eric Cantor. Some day, sooner or later, he’s going to say, ‘Boy, Obama had a good idea.’ ”

But Obama and other Democrats have never been as furious at Cantor as they were this past July during the debt-ceiling fight. For weeks, Obama had been negotiating with House Speaker John Boehner over a so-called “grand bargain” that would cut spending and raise taxes in exchange for a debt deal. But Cantor, who forcefully channeled tea-party Republicans’ opposition to any tax increase, had helped scuttle those talks. On a Wednesday afternoon, during a hiatus in the Obama-Boehner negotiations, a group of congressional leaders met for over two hours in the White House Cabinet Room, with Obama doing most of the arguing for the Democrats and Cantor for the Republicans. As the meeting was drawing to a close, Cantor and Obama repeated their arguments one final time—and then Obama erupted. “Eric, don’t call my bluff,” the president reportedly said. “I’m going to the American people with this.”

The episode might have been over, had Cantor then not gone in front of reporters in the Capitol and accused Obama of petulance. “It ended with the president abruptly walking out of the meeting,” Cantor said. “I was somewhat taken aback.” Democrats returned fire, with Harry Reid taking to the Senate floor to brand Cantor’s behavior as “childish.” In private conversations, they’re even more cutting. “Jerk,” “ungentlemanly,” “underhanded,” “patronizing,” and “smug son of a bitch” were just a few of the insults I heard when I mentioned Cantor’s name to Democratic lawmakers and aides. Bill Burton, the former White House spokesman who now runs a pro-Obama super PAC, says, “Cantor has had an outsized influence on how poisonously partisan Washington has been these last couple years.”

Cantor is 48 years old, but with his thick black hair and runner’s build, he looks considerably younger. And as he sat perched on a couch in his office that evening last month and reflected on his run-ins with Obama, he resembled no one so much as Eddie Haskell proclaiming his innocence. “I try to be deferential,” Cantor said in his buttery southern accent. “I mean, I’m a lawyer, I was raised in the sort of schooling, if you will, of deference to someone on the bench—and certainly to the president … I’m not this guy with horns and a partisan only.”

As if to prove it, he claimed he was ready to work with Obama on the jobs plan the president would unveil later that evening. The times demand it, he told me. But Cantor and his aides seemed to know that the bipartisan happy talk emanating from both sides was just that—and they were preparing, somewhat gleefully, for yet another clash and yet another round of very personal, very presidential attention. They noted that Michelle Obama would be sitting next to a high-school student from Cantor’s hometown of Richmond during the speech that night. (“I’m surprised they didn’t invite Eric’s opponent,” Murray quipped.) They speculated about the motives behind Paul Begala’s decision to conduct focus groups on Obama’s jobs speech in Cantor’s district. (“Then they can come out and say the people of Richmond support it,” Dayspring explained.) And they put the finishing touches on a jobs event Cantor would be doing the next afternoon in Richmond—which had been necessitated by the fact that Obama had picked the Virginia capital, of all places, as the site for the first rally of his jobs-bill push the next morning.