Shortly before Thanksgiving, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell delivered a blunt message in a private phone call to President Barack Obama: You won only four out of 120 Kentucky counties and lost many senators’ home states.
McConnell was trying to pointedly warn Obama that mounting a public relations campaign to avert the fiscal cliff could backfire, according to sources familiar with the call.
It was a moment that exemplified the frosty relationship between two of the most important men in Washington. They’ve rarely met or spoken privately since Obama moved into the Oval Office four years ago. Obama and his team view McConnell as a cold political operator whose main goal has been to see Obama’s defeat — McConnell famously said two years ago that “the single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” McConnell believes Obama has shown virtually no interest in bipartisan negotiating or even reaching out to Republicans at all — and refuses to lead on difficult policy disputes.
Now, as Washington lurches towards an economy-shaking budget crisis, the adversarial relationship between the president and the top Republican in the Senate looms over serious deal making on the fiscal cliff. For any tax and spending package to get 60 votes in the Senate, McConnell and Obama will have to agree on something — and so far, it’s not clear if there’s anything that the two men can settle on.
“I cannot imagine how the president of the United States can function without a good, strong relationship with the leader of the minority party in the Senate,” Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), a close McConnell confidant, told POLITICO. “You may be able to run a campaign without that, but you can’t be a good president without that.”
Another senior GOP senator, who asked not to be named, said McConnell views Obama as “unimpressive” and “thinks the president is not up to the job.”
The chill between McConnell and Obama stands in contrast to the clearly more affable relationship Obama enjoys with House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). When Obama had to work with McConnell in 2010 on the expiring Bush tax cuts, he dispatched Vice President Joe Biden — who had worked with McConnell for more than two decades in the Senate — to grease the wheels on the bipartisan accord.
Democrats, for their part, privately say McConnell is using his opposition to Obama as a way to boost his own 2014 reelection efforts. McConnell has already made clear how serious he is about that race, hiring Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul’s campaign manager, building an aggressive operation back home and holding a fundraiser on Nov. 7, the day after the elections.
“It was clear the day after the election that Mitch McConnell is already in full reelection mode and his campaign strategy is to run against the president,” a Democratic aide said. “Nothing has changed.”
Conversations between Obama and McConnell have been few and far between, including just a single one-on-one meeting during the past two years. Shortly before congressional leaders gathered at the White House before Thanksgiving, McConnell reminded the president of his poor performance in Kentucky, which Mitt Romney carried by nearly 24 percentage points, according to sources familiar with the call.
Don Stewart, McConnell’s chief spokesman, said McConnell’s comments to Obama “were in the context of trying to find a solution” to the budget crisis. The GOP leader told the president that continuing to engage in a public-relations blitz against Republicans “could have the opposite effect of what he was trying to accomplish,” the spokesman said.
Stewart added: “This, by the way, is sound advice.”
The White House declined to comment.
Each man has used the other as his political foil. Time after time, Obama has seized on McConnell’s one-term president comments to portray the GOP leader as the face of Republican intransigence.
“And I believe that in a second term, where Mitch McConnell’s imperative of making me a one-term president is no longer relevant, they recognize that what the American people are looking for is for us to get things done,” Obama told Time magazine in August.
GOP aides note that in the same October 2010 National Journal interview in which McConnell said he wanted to make Obama a one-term president, the Kentucky Republican added that “I don’t want the president to fail; I want him to change.”
Still, headed into a 2014 election for a sixth term, McConnell certainly sees the benefit in continuing his role as a chief antagonist of the Obama administration, especially given the president’s poor performance in the Bluegrass State. Even in the May Democratic primary there, 42 percent of voters pulled the lever for “uncommitted” rather than voting for Obama.
McConnell will almost certainly be a top target for the White House and the Democratic leadership in Washington during this cycle. Several unions and pro-Democratic groups already have operatives on the ground in Kentucky looking to dig up dirt on McConnell, according to Democratic sources.
Yet this is a threat McConnell’s team is prepared for.
“It means we’re going to hang Barack Obama around the neck of every Democrat who tries to run against Sen. McConnell,” Jesse Benton, McConnell’s campaign manager, told POLITICO. “He and his agenda are just very, very unpopular in this state. That is something we’re going to pin on any Democrat who wants to step up to the plate.”
While Benton and McConnell aides say the political tactics won’t interfere with the budget deal, Democrats are skeptical that the GOP leader will be able to come to the middle and reach an accord with the president.
“[McConnell] sold his soul to the tea party here to try to stave off a primary,” Dan Logsdon, chairman of the Kentucky Democratic Party, said Wednesday. “I don’t know how you go to those folks and say, ‘Look, I cut a deal with this man who I told you isn’t worthy to work with.’ He’s really put himself in a tough spot back here.”
It’s not entirely unusual for a Senate leader and a president to lack a relationship. As Senate minority leader in 2005, Harry Reid called George W. Bush a “loser” and tore into the Republican president repeatedly on the Senate floor. Still, there have been far more productive relations — most notably between Republican leader Everett Dirksen and President Lyndon B. Johnson that helped lead to the passage of the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act.
McConnell doesn’t engage in personal insults like Reid did, but he fiercely attacks the president on a daily basis, including repeatedly warning Obama not to ignore GOP budget demands just because he won reelection. At the White House meeting with congressional leaders right before Thanksgiving, McConnell pointedly raised objections to Democratic efforts to change Senate filibuster rules, sources say.
But even so, Obama isn’t listening to McConnell’s warnings about dispensing with campaign-style tactics on the fiscal cliff.
As Obama prepared this week to reengage in a campaign-style road trip to Pennsylvania, McConnell scoffed at the move on the Senate floor on Wednesday.
“I mean, every week [Obama] spends campaigning for his ideas is a week that we’re not solving the problem,” McConnell said on the floor. “It’s totally counterproductive. The election is over. We’ve got a hard deadline here and he’s still out on the campaign trail. This is a problem.”
Some believe their lack of a relationship has led to some policy failures — most notably in January 2010, when Obama eventually endorsed a bipartisan commission to tackle the debt while McConnell reversed his stance and helped kill the plan.
While Alexander put the blame on the president, he said the two men could have worked through their differences had they fostered a better working relationship.
“The country was damaged, I think, with the lack of relationship between the president and Mitch,” Alexander said. “I put the responsibility on the president to correct the mistake in the second term, and the good place to do this is with fixing the debt.”