Scolding and Scheming: Politics at Its Best

BY Gwen Ifill  July 8, 2011 at 12:15 PM EST


President Obama updates reporters on debt talks. White House photo.

The president knotted his tie and strode into the White House press briefing room Thursday to announce that he’d just concluded a “very constructive” meeting with members of Congress.

You can tell it must have been “very constructive,” because Mr. Obama employed the phrase twice in a matter of three minutes.

He also said the meeting, designed to move the ball in the ongoing slog of negotiations toward the federal debt deadline, was “frank” and embraced the “spirit of compromise … the spirit of wanting to solve problems on behalf of the American people.”

What a difference a week makes.

Just eight days ago, Mr. Obama knotted his tie and strode into the White House East Room to deliver a very different, much more impatient, message.

“We’ve identified what spending cuts are possible,” he said. “We’ve identified what defense cuts are possible. We’ve identified what health care cuts are possible. We’ve identified what loopholes in the tax code can be closed that would also raise revenue. We’ve identified what the options are. And the question now is, are we going to step up and get this done?”

His daughters, he continued, managed to finish their homework “ahead of time.” “They don’t wait until the night before,” he said. “They’re not pulling all-nighters.”

Republicans were not happy to be compared to tweens. What adults are? So there was predictable pushback. “If we default, it’s because the president is not doing his job,” retorted Senator Rand Paul, R-Ky.

But lawmakers cut their Independence Day recess short, and by the time the hometown fireworks faded, the president’s tone had softened. Popping into the White House Briefing Room Tuesday, he told reporters: “We’ve made progress. And I believe that greater progress is within sight.”

What had occurred in between the public scolding and the declaration of progress? It turns out that House Speaker John Boehner made an undisclosed weekend visit to the White House – the second one we’ve been told of since the two men played a cordial game of golf a few weeks ago.

Something does seem to have shaken loose, although, as of this writing, we do not yet know what.

Boehner’s accusations of “job killing” tactics — usually disseminated by tweet — seem more perfunctory. The president even poked fun at one during a Twitter town hall on Wednesday.

And when the Speaker met with his GOP caucus on Thursday, National Journal reported he was placing the odds of reaching a deal within 48 hours at “50-50.”

“Everything’s on the table, except raising taxes on American people,” Boehner said as he left the Capitol afterward for a White House meeting. “We believe that comprehensive tax reform, both on the corporate side and personal side, would make America more competitive, help create jobs in our country. And it’s something that is under discussion.”

The best sign that a deal will be cut in time for the latest dire deadline — August 2 — can be found in the leaks, a steady drip of speculation about Medicare and Medicaid cuts, tax reform, Social Security and the overall size of the deal, now pegged at around $4 trillion.

White House press secretary Jay Carney has now been reduced to parsing the difference between “slashing” and “cutting” the budget. (Slashing is apparently off the table; cutting is apparently on.)

So what’s the bottom line? Definitions. The Democrats want to show they can cut the budget. The Republicans want to show they can keep taxes from being increased.

When those two lines cross, and each can sell the necessary pain to their supporters, there will be a deal.

If you’re following along at home, keep track of how the scolding (read: tough talk) has lead to scheming (read: practical compromise.”)

From Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah: “There are ways of raising revenues without raising taxes.”

From House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi: “We really do have to have a definition of our terms so that we know when we have reached success and not move the goal posts.”

And then on Friday, after it became clear there would be no good news to be found in the monthly unemployment numbers, Boehner hurled cold water on the idea of quick agreement.

“It’s not like there is some imminent deal about to happen,” he said. “This is a Rubik’s cube that we have not worked out yet.”

If you’ve ever fiddled with a Rubik’s cube, you will remember that solving it takes patience and a willingness to scrub everything to start from scratch. Is that a recipe for compromise, or confrontation?

Gwen’s Take is cross-posted with the website of Washington Week, which airs Friday night on many PBS stations. Check your local listings.