President Obama has fallen into the John Boehner trap. By attacking Boehner last week — emphatically, repeatedly, and by name — the president made himself look desperate. And by treating Boehner as practically an equal, Obama elevated him.
Boehner was delighted. Obama had helped him fill the leadership void among Republicans. For the president, that’s a negative twofer.
Obama has only himself to blame, since Boehner, the House Republican leader, didn’t knowingly set a trap. In criticizing Obama’s economic record in a speech in August and recommending a new policy, Boehner was pursuing his own blueprint for an increased public role in the weeks before the midterm elections. Now that he and Obama are irretrievably paired, Boehner will be a bigger and more visible presence than he had imagined.
Thanks to the president, Boehner has become the one Republican to whom the media must pay serious attention. When Obama speaks, reporters will turn to Boehner for reaction. When Boehner holds forth, the media will ask the White House to respond. This back-and-forth is not good for Obama. Presidents are at their best — their most authoritative, influential, and respected — when they transcend partisan politics. But far from rising above the bedlam of the campaign, Obama is wallowing in it. While it’s normal for presidents to take part in midterm elections, it’s important they do it the right way. If they sound like a TV attack ad, as Obama often has, they’re at their least effective.
A word comes to mind about the Boehner gambit — unpresidential. Karl Rove, President Bush’s political adviser, offered four words — “nutty, demeaning, useless, ill-conceived.” So far as I know, a premeditated assault by a president on the leader of the opposition [minority] party in the House is unprecedented. Would Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton or any other president even have considered such a tactic? I suspect not.
Nor is it likely to work. Obama’s point was that the country would be worse off with Republicans like Boehner in charge of Congress. Republicans adopted a similar message in 2006. Only the name was different. Then it was Nancy Pelosi, accompanied by a group of liberal committee chairmen. “It didn’t help us,” says Representative Kevin McCarthy, the deputy Republican whip in the House. Democrats captured the House and Senate.
And there’s a perfectly sensible reason the tactic failed. In 2006, Republicans — their conduct and their policies — were the sole issue. Yes, voters should have cared about who might replace Republicans, but they didn’t. “People didn’t know who Nancy Pelosi was,” says McCarthy, and they couldn’t be bothered to find out.
Today it’s Boehner who’s less than a household name. Obama and Democrats are the issue. A recent poll found that only half the public had heard of Boehner, and only half of those who had heard of him had an opinion of him. The attempt to turn him into a big-time villain isn’t likely to be a game changer in an election seven weeks off.
Besides, the whole thing is contrived and looks like it was seized upon solely because the campaign is going so poorly for Democrats and nothing else has worked. Suddenly, out of the blue, Obama declares Boehner the problem, a person who should strike fear in the hearts of average Americans. What the demonization of Boehner indicates, among other things, is that blaming President George W. Bush has lost whatever potency it had. Boehner is the new nemesis.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard, where this article appeared.