The presidential balancing act

President Barack Obama, flanked by Vice President John Biden and House Speaker John Boehner smiles as he gives his State of the Union address during a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday Feb. 12, 2013. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, Pool)
Pool,AP Photo/Charles Dharapak

This post originally appeared on Slate.

President Obama made two phone calls to Republicans in Congress this week. One was phony and one was real. The difference between the two calls underscores the challenge for his second term: How do you work with Republicans while you are simultaneously making yourself more loathsome to them? The preliminary answer seems to be by modulating your aggression. The president is betting part of his presidency on picking budget fights with Republicans, while resting most of his legacy on avoiding confrontation when it comes to passing immigration reform. Will it work? Getting this balance right will determine whether the president's second term will be a success or a smoldering coda. It might also tell us something about leadership in a time of political sclerosis.

Let's start with the phony call. On Thursday, President Obama called House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell. The subject was the sequester, the across-the-board spending cuts set to kick in March 1. Administration aides privately concede that the calls were largely for show. The president wanted it to appear as though he was making an effort to avoid the cuts. If the cuts happen and the public looks to blame someone, the president can say he tried to reach out. This strategy achieved a rare level of bipartisan agreement in Washington. According to GOP aides, their bosses received the calls in the spirit in which they were dialed--as empty public relations moves that did nothing to avert the cuts.

The president and his aides think they have the upper hand politically. They point to the numbers. In a recent PEW poll, even a majority of Republicans support the president's call for a mix of spending reductions and tax increases. In the Bloomberg poll, the president's approval rating (55 percent) was 20 points higher than that of the Republican Party (35 percent). With the public on his side, the president will continue to use his office to highlight that Republicans are opposing a popular way forward. And why not, it's worked twice already. The president's new, less compromising approach led to agreement with Republicans over the fiscal cliff and the debt limit.

Congressional Republicans have a number of reasons to resist the pressure. The latest, explained to me last night by one GOP aide, is that their poll numbers won't get any better with an agreement. The public won't suddenly start loving Republicans because they agreed to a deal to fund the government, a task most people think is part of their job anyway. The president learned this lesson last summer after he cemented an agreement with Republicans to keep the government open. No one gives you credit for deciding not to slam your hand in the door.

The clash is driven by principle: Republicans think Washington has a spending problem and any solution based on higher taxes is misplaced. They can elide this point to scrape together a short-term agreement, as they did during the debt limit struggle, but the fundamental philosophical disagreement remains. So, many Republicans believe they might as well have the fight now. Plus, the base would lose it if Republicans caved to the president. Conservatives already think congressional Republicans were defeated on the fights over the fiscal cliff and the debt limit. This would be a third surrender.

Is the president's hard line a failure of leadership? Republicans say yes. John Boehner's aides have been sending reporters copies of stories chronicling president Obama's lack of congressional outreach. If outreach is a sign of leadership and the president isn't doing that, then it follows that he's the one to blame for this sequester mess. Of course, the White House says it doesn't have a willing partner, so they think the old model of "reasoning together" is less effective than simply making Republicans cry uncle. But they understand the importance of appearances. That is what inspired the president's speed dialing. The president has to look like he's trying so he can't be tagged for not leading.