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Ruth Marcus: Time to be dealmaker in chief

BY RUTH MARCUS Published: March 16, 2013
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When it comes to Republicans, President Obama sees himself as a kind of reverse Sally Field: They don't like him. They really, really, don't like him.

Judging by the junior high school behavior of House members who snarkily live-tweeted the president's closed-door meeting Wednesday, this seems a rather accurate assessment.

“Stuck getting Obama ‘charm offensive' right now when we should be talking about #balancedbudget … or is it ‘offensive charm'?” tweeted Arizona Republican Matt Salmon, as chronicled by Slate's David Weigel.

“President to House GOP: Closing WH to Americans was not his decision, it was the Secret Service. (eyes rolling),” added John Fleming of Louisiana.

“What a coincidence, as smoke rose above the Vatican Prez Obama was on Capitol Hill blowing smoke in our face,” contributed California's Dana Rohrabacher.

Obama in some ways anticipated this churlish response in an interview with ABC's George Stephanopoulos the previous day, when he described his theory of bargaining with congressional Republicans.

Stephanopoulos: “So, you might poison the well if you put forward these ideas.”

Obama: “You know — I think whatever I'm for, it's very hard for a Republican to also be for. I think they always have to be a little bit — you know, maintain some distance.”

The president has made this point before, and maybe he's right. Yet this analysis leaves the president in a distinctly unpresidential posture — not leaning in, but holding back.

Again, Stephanopoulos: “But even the ones who've seen your plans say they need to see more.”

Obama: “I understand. Which is why, at some point, I think I take myself out of this.”

The president portrayed himself as a sort of maitre d' for budget negotiations, setting the table for others to forge an agreement.

It's true that there are times when presidential intervention in delicate congressional negotiations can be counterproductive. It's certainly true that there are times when congressional Democrats have advised the White House to butt out. But leading through diffidence is not a traditional presidential strategy, nor is there much reason to expect it to produce results.

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