Long gone are the days when President Obama would gift House Speaker John Boehner a pricey bottle of Tuscan wine to celebrate his birthday – or invite his chief Republican adversary to join him for a round of golf.
And these days, with the 2014 midterms approaching and House Republicans planing to sue the commander-in-chief, Boehner is letting loose more anti-Obama rhetoric these days than at anytime in recent memory.
Seventeen of Boehner’s past 50 tweets – a full one-third – criticize Obama on a host of issues, including healthcare, the nation’s debt, the president’s “war on coal” and immigration. “Do your job, Mr. President,” Boehner writes. Press releases and his “Speaker’s blog” are inundated with criticism too, with headlines like “10 reasons ObamaCare is ‘more unpopular than ever,’” “Will President Obama follow through on his promises to veterans?” and criticizing what he sees as a lack of leadership, strategy in Iraq, and job creation.
It seems like for every Obama action, there is an equal and opposite Boehner reaction. Of course, it’s nothing new for a president and speaker of an opposite party (We’re looking at you, Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich) to be in constant battles with one another. But these days, Boehner’s preoccupation with Obama seems reflexive, vehement, and all-encompassing.
It all boils down to one thing: the 2014 midterms. Boehner is hoping to capitalize on Obama’s flagging poll numbers ahead of the November contests since the GOP is the odds-on favorite not only to comfortably keep the House, but to potentially win back the Senate, too.
“Most midterm elections are a referendum on the president and I think the Speaker is rightfully turning attention to the president’s job performance,” said Republican strategist John Feehery, a longtime top aide to former GOP House Speaker Dennis Hastert.
However, GOP strategist Roger Stone, who worked for both the Nixon and Reagan administrations, said the increased Boehner attacks on Obama seem personal in nature and that it could backfire.
“There’s enormous risk of sounding unduly partisan. There’s very little credibility in Washington for either party right now,” he said, adding that because the GOP is so fractured, enmity toward Obama may be the only thing the party can agree on.
“There’s enormous pressure on Boehner because he has a very diverse caucus. Getting the Tea Party types to go along with any type of reasonable reform is not easy,” said Stone. Because of that, the GOP has struggled to define what it stands for.
Most recently, Boehner has gone after’s the president’s authorization of airstrikes in Iraq. While he says the action is appropriate, Boehner said he is “dismayed by the ongoing absence of a strategy” to combat Islamic extremists. He argued Obama is more interested in keeping his promise to end the war in Iraq than in completing the U.S. mission. Democrats quickly pointed out that Boehner skipped a recent White House meeting where a number of foreign policy issues were being discussed, including Iraq. Meanwhile, the House last month moved a step closer to greenlighting a resolution allowing the House to sue Obama for what they see is a failure to properly implement Obamacare.
Obama has returned jabs as well, although not with the same frequency –especially on Twitter –as Boehner. In Austin last month, he said the “best thing” you can say for the GOP-led House is that “so far they have not shut down the government,” quickly adding “But of course, it’s only July, so who knows what they may cook up in the next few months.” In D.C., he dared Republicans to follow through on their plan to bring a lawsuit against him over his use of executive actions. “Middle class families can’t wait for Republicans in Congress to do stuff. As long as they’re doing nothing, I’m not going to apologize for trying to do something.”
Yes, the president’s second term has been sputtering, with low approval ratings and little to show for priorities like immigration reform and raising the minimum wage. But no doubt, Obama’s problems have been made worse by a gridlocked Congress and Republican lawmakers, including Boehner, who have blocked him at every turn.
Boehner and Obama’s relationship hasn’t always been so frosty. The breaking point seemed to be the summer of 2011, when Boehner and Obama’s attempt to make a grand budget deal blew up in their faces. Nasty rhetoric flew with both sides accusing the other from walking away from a solution. Since then, the relationship has soured. Boehner has declined several invitations to White House dinners and the two openly mock each other. Face-to-face meetings between Obama and Boehner are the exception rather than the rule.
The White House, which did not return a request for comment, has repeatedly insisted in the past that the relationship is solid. Meanwhile, Boehner’s spokesman, Michael Steel, told msnbc that the two “generally have a good working relationship.” Most impartial observers would probably beg to differ.
Steven Gillon, a history professor at the University of Oklahoma and author of “The Pact,” which details the relationship between Clinton and Gingrich, said Boehner and Obama have never seemed to be on the same page.
“They are two men with different histories, background and temperaments. They never established a chemistry that could be defined as a relationship,” Gillon said, comparing the relationship to Gingrich and Clinton. Even though Gingrich skewered Clinton in public, behind the scenes they would meet. They trusted Erskine Bowles, Clinton’s chief of staff, to serve as a liaison to help negotiate a deal. Similarly, President Reagan and Speaker Tip O’Neill’s relationship was contentious but they were able to set aside their differences to come up with agreements on issues like Social Security and tax reform.
Any public appearances the two make together are “empty and hollow and designed to present the illusion of intimacy,” said Gillon. He described Obama as the “cool, calculating, rational leader” while Boehner is emotional and constantly juggling demands of a restless right wing in order to hold onto his job. “He’s a backroom deal guy and unfortunately, the types of backroom deals that some in his party want are not the ones that will bring him closer to Barack Obama…Boehner likes making deals, but he doesn’t have the cards because his right wing holds the ace of spades.”