WASHINGTON—Tom McClintock yearns for life on Capitol Hill the way it was back in 1994. The Republican congressman from California was embroiled in state politics at the time and not a Capital Beltway lawmaker. But McClintock, who first won his House seat in 2008, remembers how then President Bill Clinton reached out to Republicans after Democrats suffered a drubbing in the midterm elections.
“They did some absolutely amazing things together on the economy,” McClintock said this week about the bipartisanship that emerged after a 54-seat, Democrat-to-Republican sea change swept through the House.
“They reduced federal spending by a miraculous 4 percent of [gross domestic product]; they produced the biggest capital gains tax cuts in American history; they reformed our entitlement system by altering the open-ended welfare system that we had at the time. Those policies worked and produced a period of prolonged economic expansion.”
McClintock reminisced about the Washington of nearly 20 years ago, calling it a model of cooperation, on the same day President Barack Obama crammed in two campaign-charged speeches in Illinois and Missouri during a nearly 12-hour trip away from the White House. While lawmakers on Capitol Hill voted late into the night on student loan and national security bills, Obama looked like he was running for a third term, appearing at rallies far from Washington that seemed more like scenes from the summer of 2012 than the summer of 2013.
The narrative Obama used to rally his troops came straight out of the script he used during last year’s presidential election: Blame Republicans for Washington’s gridlock and express dismay over the fact that lawmakers aren’t cranking out legislation based on his ideas.
“With an endless parade of distractions, political posturing, and phony scandals, Washington has taken its eye off the ball,” Obama told a gathering at Galesburg, Ill., on Wednesday. “And I am here to say this needs to stop. Short-term thinking and stale debates are not what this moment requires.”
Obama’s speech, the first in a series he will give around the nation in the coming days, was light on new policies and heavy on old rhetoric. One of the president’s biggest talking points has been to cast Republicans as the villains behind whatever goes wrong in Washington. It is a storyline picked up by most of the media, whose initial reports on the Illinois speech described how Obama chided, chastised, and challenged Republicans, and how the GOP intractability has led to one legislative crisis after another.
“The fact is, there are Republicans in Congress right now who privately agree with me on many of the ideas I’ll be proposing, but worry they’ll face swift political retaliation for saying so,” Obama said. “Others will dismiss every idea I put forward either because they’re playing to their most strident supporters, or because they have a fundamentally different vision for America. …”
Obama’s one hour and six minute sermon culled liberally from his past orations, including the address he delivered at last year’s Democratic National Convention. But back in Washington, many conservative lawmakers expressed frustration that the president does not engage with them in the same way he reaches out to his supporters.
“Instead of flying around the county, he should park Air Force One and sit down and talk to our leaders in Congress,” said Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La. “But he doesn’t want to do that. He wants to play politics. At some point the president is going to have to decide to park the campaign plane and bus and end the campaign and … go do the job we were all elected to do.”
The president’s newest batch of speeches—he delivered another one in Florida today—are attempts to seize control of the economic debate ahead of this fall’s fights on funding the government and increasing its borrowing limit. Congress last extended the limit in February, but borrowing will reach that ceiling yet again in the coming months. Republicans have insisted new debt ceiling levels must be paired with spending cuts, something most Democrats oppose. But Rep. Raúl Labrador, R-Idaho, insists Republicans do not want to shut down the government.
“What we want to do is have responsible government spending,” he said. “That we do the things that are necessary to bring fiscal sanity to Washington, D.C. If his economic agenda is to raise taxes and spend more money the answer is going to be we can’t work with him. There are regulations that are killing businesses right now.”
Republicans have not shied away from portraying Obama as the villain in their own narratives. But some conservative lawmakers this week are emphasizing their past attempts to reach out. When Obama spoke about reforming the corporate tax code during past State of the Union addresses, Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M., wrote the White House offering to help.
“And we never heard back,” Pearce said. “That typically is what we find. We hear lip service but not much real intention to engage.”
Labrador also has written Obama, pledging to work with the president on regulatory reform and tax reform items that Labrador occasionally hears in Obama’s speeches.
“To this day I haven’t heard from the president on any of these issues,” he said.
Obama delivered his Illinois talk at Knox College, the same spot where he gave his first major economic address in 2005, just months into his tenure as a U.S. senator. In that speech, he outlined his belief in the government’s power and obligation to create and sustain economic growth and a large middle class. This time around, Obama used the same location to trumpet the economic progress he said has been made.
“We’ve come a long way since I first took office,” he said to applause.
But Republicans back in Washington responded with data comparing 2013 to 2005. Back then the unemployment rate was around 5 percent. This June it was 7.6 percent. While a tad more than 7.5 million Americans were listed as unemployed in June 2005, about 11.8 million are out of work today. The average duration of unemployment was less than 18 weeks in 2005 while it was nearly 36 weeks in June 2013.
Obama in his speech at the college accused Republicans of making gridlock worse during the last six months. And he scolded them for not offering any ideas.
“Repealing Obamacare and cutting spending is not an economic plan. It’s not,” Obama said. “I say to these members of Congress: I’m laying out my ideas to give the middle class a better shot. So now it’s time for you to lay out your ideas.”
Republicans pointed out that Obama’s own White House decided to delay some major elements of his new healthcare law. Meanwhile, House Speaker John Boehner tweeted a message to Obama with a web link to the House Republicans’ 10-step plan for economic growth, which includes energy independence, simplifying the tax code, and controlling spending.
But that is what Washington politics has come to in 2013: tweets in response to speeches, while politicians remain hundreds of miles apart. Tweeting was not available to Clinton and the House Republicans he had to work with in 1994. But even in the 21st century, the political sign remains a timeless tool. Along the presidential motorcade route in Illinois, one person held up a poster reading: “Want jobs? Open Keystone.”
That proposed pipeline project, long stalled, is just one example of a project Obama could work on with members of both parties to help the economy, according to Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell.
“And there’s a lot more we could get done if he’d actually pick up the telephone and try to work with us every once in a while,” McConnell added. “I know Democrats would love to hear from him every now and then too. Because every time he goes out and gives one of these speeches, it generates little more than a collective, bipartisan eye roll.”