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Barack Obama is looking for a few good fights.
Obama, the same president who campaigned twice on breaking the cycle o...
Barack Obama is looking for a few good fights.
Obama, the same president who campaigned twice on breaking the cycle of conflict in Washington, sees the utility -- even the necessity -- of rattling Republican cages as he plunges into a succession of upcoming battles over the nomination of Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense, the debt ceiling, $1 trillion in automatic budget cuts, immigration reform and gun control.
Obama's willingness to take a more overtly adversarial stance is, in part, a nod to the reality that he's about to start his second term with solid approval numbers -- "Hit now, as hard as you can, because your power starts to die in six, eight months," according to a top aide to a Senate Republican who has often locked horns with the White House.
That entails taking a tough line with the Hill GOP on Hagel -- who has vowed to battle "distortions" of his record on Iran and Israel -- and stiff-arming the GOP at the start of negotiations over the debt ceiling and across-the-board spending cuts. It's less clear whether Obama will be quite as bellicose on issues that require a more subtle approach, like immigration, guns and climate change, although his aides are talking tough.
Picking a few choice fights "is a very good strategy if you know that applying all that pressure gets you the result you are looking for," said former White House press secretary Robert Gibbs, an adviser to Obama's 2012 campaign. "But if you pick a fight, you have to be sure the tactic helps ensure the result you want rather than making it harder to achieve."
There's also a long-term strategy: Two months after a decisive presidential win, Obama and his party already are eyeing the 2014 midterms. Highlighting the contrasts between the White House and congressional Republicans could flip the House back to Democrats, giving Obama a final two-year governing majority that bookends the one he enjoyed during his first two years in office.
But it would be a mistake to attribute all of Obama's actions to dispassionate tactics. After four-plus years of embittered partisan combat, he views his GOP bargaining partners with more than a little contempt, and he momentarily vanquished enemies who just can't say "yes" to him.
His apparent conclusion, after watching the implosion of the House GOP's effort to pass a modest tax increase before the final fiscal cliff deal, is that the best way to deal with the Capitol is to throw rocks at it -- then send Vice President Joe Biden in to clean up the glass.
"There are 536 people who will be negotiating deals -- the House, the Senate and the president," an Obama aide said. "Only one of them isn't running for reelection again. That gives us leverage."
Republicans see parallels between Obama's recent tough-guy stance -- he practically dared the GOP to shoot down Hagel, one of their own, during an East Room ceremony Monday -- and his aggressive push for the stimulus and health reform bills early in his first term.
"When you add it up, the president's intentions in the next two years are not to govern well or in a bipartisan way but to maneuver," said Ari Fleischer, George W. Bush's press secretary and a frequent Obama critic. "I think his highest ambition is to defeat Republicans in the midterm election so he can finish his presidency in a flourish."
But five current and former White House veterans said they see a big change in tone from Obama and a desire to project the toughest possible image to his adversaries.
One of the reasons the president is so determined to stick with Hagel despite criticism of his views on Israel and Iran, according to Obama insiders: It would have looked weak to bail on a second nominee after Susan Rice, Obama's first choice for secretary of state, withdrew last month under pressure from Republicans.
It isn't all about saving face or destabilizing the opposition. Obama aides say the president wants to govern in a bipartisan way but is blocked by a House GOP majority that is unwilling and incapable of functioning in a responsible manner.
The best way to get what he wants, his staff says, is to create pressure from the outside through campaign-style events like the ones he staged in December during the fiscal cliff negotiations.
But there are limits to how far to push his advantage. The Hagel nomination and upcoming debt negotiations require blunt force in the eyes of many Democrats. Immigration reform and gun control are very different issues, requiring a more subtle application of pressure and coordination.
Obama isn't the only one toughening up for the new year. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) doesn't want to negotiate with the president one-on-one anymore, he told his members after the humbling fiscal cliff fight.
For the moment, that seems to suit Obama just fine.
"This is not personal, and this is about putting in place the policies that are best for the country. That's how the president looks at it," Obama press secretary Jay Carney said Monday, side-stepping several opportunities to chide Boehner during the White House briefing.
"There's no question that President Obama, in the course of his four years in office, has learned a great deal about how to work with Congress and how to enlist public support on behalf of policies," Carney added.
Whether all this is smart politics or blind partisanship is very much in the eye of the Obama beholder.
In the view of the president's progressive allies, he has already been too nice and too accommodating to the opposition. Many in the party, including Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), believe Obama could have driven a harder bargain during the fiscal cliff talks, extracting a longer-term deal on the sequester or lowering the threshold for tax hikes from $400,000 to $250,000.
"Republican hostage-taking and avoiding our real crises is setting the stage for more fiscal blackmail at the expense of the middle class," tweeted AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka hours after the New Year's Eve deal was announced.
On the other end of the spectrum are Republicans led by Sen. Lindsey Graham, the media-savvy South Carolinian who has led the charge against Hagel -- an iconoclast who opposed the Iraq War, after first backing it, and now supports Obama's plans to slash military spending as part of his deficit-reduction efforts.
"Chuck Hagel, if confirmed to be the secretary of defense, would be the most antagonistic secretary of defense toward the state of Israel in our nation's history," Graham said on CNN's "State of the Union" on Sunday.
"He has long severed his ties with the Republican Party. This is an in-your-face nomination by the president," Graham said. "And it looks like the second term of Barack Obama is going to be an in-your-face term."
Obama, during the East Room announcement, twice urged the Senate to move quickly to confirm Hagel and John Brennan, whom he selected to lead the CIA. When Obama named John Kerry to lead the State Department last month, he said he is "confident that the Senate will confirm you quickly."
With Hagel, Obama offered more prodding -- and the promise of a fight.
"I just want to repeat I hope that the Senate will act on these confirmations promptly," Obama said Monday. "When it comes to national security, we don't like to leave a lot of gaps between the time that one set of leaders transitions out and another transitions in. So we need to get moving quickly on this."
Hagel has indicated he's ready to defend himself, telling the Journal Star of Lincoln, Neb., on Monday that he has been "unable to respond to charges, falsehoods and distortions."
"All I look for is an opportunity to respond," he added.
Obama seems equally unwilling to give ground -- at least for now -- on the sequester and debt ceiling fights, refusing to negotiate over the ceiling even as Republicans vow to leverage the deadline to extract deeper budget and entitlement cuts from the president.
Carney, speaking to reporters on Tuesday, put the onus on Republicans to specify their proposed cuts before Obama makes his opening move in negotiations. "If the Republicans are suggesting that the answer to the sequester, to the debt ceiling or any other thing, [is] simply to slash benefits for seniors, they ought to say so and they ought to provide a specified plan," he said. "They know that the president won't accept that."
But Obama's most intriguing fight -- or non-fight -- looms on gun control in the wake of a December school massacre that repeatedly brought him to tears.
Some members of the president's own staff were chagrined when he decided to create a task force, led by Biden, to study gun control measures instead of pushing ahead in the lame-duck session with bills limiting high-capacity gun magazines and expanding the firearms database.
To some Obama veterans, that move echoed the earliest months of Obama's first-term, when then-chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, an arch pragmatist, clamped down on any proposal that didn't have a realistic chance of surviving in Congress. There would be no crusades in the Obama White House, he told his troops.
This time might be different, White House officials say. The massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School touched the president deeply, and he had privately expressed a desire to force members of Congress to vote, up or down, on gun legislation, whatever the outcome.
Moreover, they believe that a victory on the Hagel confirmation -- which they expect, despite some opposition among Democrats -- will give them more leverage in the gun control and debt ceiling fights.
Fleischer, for one, agrees. "It really comes down to if you win the first, it gives you strength to win the second," he said. "If you win the second, it gives you strength to win the third. But if you lose the first, you have less strength for the second and so on."
Biden is still at least a week away from delivering his group's recommendations, and Republicans and some Democrats are already stating their opposition to broad reforms. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) on "Fox News Sunday" called the as-yet-unannounced proposals "unconstitutional." Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota called them "extreme" on ABC's "This Week" and declared "it's not going to pass."
Yet the White House is telling gun control advocates that Obama, motivated by the Connecticut school massacre, will fight for their cause.
There is, said Dan Gross of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, a "clear commitment that we feel from the administration in terms of doing something meaningful."
Gross said he expects the White House to help make the case that the American people support significant new gun control legislation, even if federal lawmakers do not.
"I don't think any one person should carry the banner alone," Gross said. "But I think that the president carrying the banner and rallying the support of the American public that already exists could make a very meaningful difference."