Gene Lyons: Yes, Obama likes to win
Breaking news: According to a front-page profile in the New York Times, President Barack Obama is an extremely competitive individual who doesn’t like to lose.
Imagine that! The first African-American man to climb the slippery ladder to the White House has an edge to his personality.
They make him sound like Michael Jordan.
The newspaper’s snarky tone indicates that this is a bad thing. “Even those loyal to Mr. Obama,” reports Jodi Kantor, “say that his quest for excellence can bleed into cockiness and that he tends to overestimate his capabilities.” GOP White House aide Matthew Dowd compares him to George W. Bush, evidently the worst insult Kantor and her editors could imagine.
Not content to be president, Obama seeks to improve his golf game. He likes to win at cards, and keeps score when bowling! Shocking, I know.
Last February, when the governor of Montana asked him flat out if he had what it takes to win re-election, Obama talked bold. “No matter what moves Mr. Romney made, the president said, he and his team were going to cut him off and block him at every turn. ‘We’re the Miami Heat, and he’s Jeremy Lin,’ Mr. Obama said.”
The Times sniffs that Obama had once praised the Harvard-trained point guard. Maybe they should leave sports analogies to sportswriters. Serious NBA fans had watched Miami’s guards suffocate Lin in a recent matchup, demonstrating that the multi-talented rookie’s path to the Hall of Fame might not be so easy if he had to dribble there with his left hand.
Obama’s nothing if not a serious NBA fan.
Less than a year earlier, Osama bin Laden was killed. Two months after that in July 2011, House Republicans brought their made-for-TV budget crisis to a head, threatening to make the U.S. government default on its debts, risking economic calamity unless Obama caved to their demands.
There has been no more dramatic example of the GOP elevating party over country. On George W. Bush’s watch, Congress had increased the debt limit in 2002, 2003, 2004, 2006 and 2007. Every GOP leader posturing against the Obama White House had voted to increase the debt level five times.
In January 2009, with the United States’ GDP having contracted 8.9 percent during the previous quarter, with 2.2 million jobs lost, and the economy shedding jobs at a rate of 750,000 a month, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., announced that “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”
Like Rush Limbaugh, these jokers wanted the president to fail. They knew that if Obama succeeded in cleaning up the Republican’s catastrophic mess — have I mentioned the $1.3 trillion yearly deficit Bush left behind? — it could be a generation before their party gained the White House again.
So now comes Bob Woodward, the ultimate Beltway insider, with a play-by-play narrative of the make-believe crisis entitled “The Price of Politics.” Fearful of Tea Party crackpots and feuding internally (Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor evidently despise each other), Republicans nevertheless believed they had Obama cornered.
As excerpted in the Washington Post, Woodward depicts President Obama confronted with an ultimatum. A deal negotiated with Republicans by Sen. Harry Reid and Rep. Nancy Pelosi would trim $1.2 trillion in federal spending. Obama had proposed that much in a “grand bargain” he’d offered Boehner — a deal the GOP speaker ran from because “deficit hawks” like Rep. Paul Ryan opposed increasing millionaires’ taxes.
But the new deal contained a poison pill — a time limit allowing the GOP to force a second showdown during the 2012 presidential campaign. To Obama, that was tantamount to blackmail. Aides counseled surrender. Republicans had the votes. Boehner informed him he had no choice.
As Woodward tells it, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner was frantic. To veto the bill would be morally wrong. Default would be calamitous for the economy, far worse than the 2008 financial crisis. The damage might last for generations.
“The one thing that we need to bring stability to this economy,” Obama responded, “is not throwing the debt limit increase back into the political arena. I’m not doing that under any circumstances. So if that means that I’m not signing this bill, I’m not signing the bill.”
Woodward reports timorous aides shocked by his anger.
“Obama never had to confront the veto question,” Woodward writes ever so disingenuously. “A few days later, House Republicans dropped their insistence on the two-step plan.”
Like a Beltway Forrest Gump, the celebrated reporter shows little sign of understanding his own story. He tells interviewers that Obama’s failure to reach a “grand bargain” signifies a failure to lead.
No, what happened was that Obama called Boehner’s bluff and the Republicans folded — a tougher opponent than they imagined.
One game at a time, Bob.
One game at a time.
Gene Lyons, Arkansas Times columnist, is at firstname.lastname@example.org.