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Obama’s Hardball Stance Comes From Lessons Learned

Capitol Hill Republicans expressed incredulity Thursday at President Barack Obama’s opening bid in the fiscal cliff negotiations, but the White House is following a strategy that they have laid out publicly for some time now.

Ever since Republicans walked away three times from bipartisan debt talks in 2011, the White House has eschewed sweet-talking the GOP and dismissed suggestions from the likes of presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin that Obama embark on assorted charm offensives involving cocktails and late-night White House get-togethers with lawmakers.

“I think that the reality of modern-day Washington is a little different than it was in 1801, to use a timely example,” Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters earlier this week. “And so the notion that you can solve all problems over a cocktail, I think, is a little overrated.”

Instead, carrying a big stick is in at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., and the fiscal cliff is the biggest stick Obama will ever have — a $600 billion bucket of pain largely aimed at GOP priorities, such as tax cuts and defense spending.

And after facing criticism from Capitol Hill Democrats for the first three years of his presidency for being too quick to offer compromise in negotiations with the GOP, the White House has adopted a far harder line in the past 18 months and appears only emboldened by the extra leverage provided by Obama’s re-election.

Plus, Democratic aides said the president is keeping his distance from lawmakers until he sees some movement from staff-level talks that have been conducted largely via email and phone between the White House and House GOP leaders. That’s part of the reason why the president travelled to Pennsylvania Friday to push for tax hikes on the wealthy. Democrats feel Obama gave congressional Republicans too much face time during the 2011 debt limit debate, and it appeared to diminished his stature in the talks, they said.

The White House proposal presented Thursday by Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner and White House chief congressional liaison Rob Nabors largely reflects proposals Obama had already made and that Carney had said would be offered. It also includes new ideas such as an extension of the payroll tax cut or some other middle class tax relief and an elimination of the debt ceiling as a practical matter.

The White House clearly doesn’t expect to get everyting it wants — Carney has said as much on a regular basis. And the administration has signaled that it’s prepared to agree to deeper cuts to health care entitlements than the $400 billion or so that it has repeatedly offered. But first, they want the GOP to agree not just to higher revenue from the wealthy, but an explicit increase in rates as well.

GOP aides had hoped the White House would avoid demanding a hike in “rates” — because that has been House Speaker John A. Boehner’s bottom-line demand this time around. The White House’s most recent proposal probably ensures that the fiscal cliff fight take lawmakers to the brink of the Jan. 1 deadline, and perhaps past it.

Republicans have privately warned that a White House attempt to strong-arm Boehner now could make it much harder to find common ground on a whole host of other issues in the next several years.

“He could do this the easy way and set the stage for a productive second term, or try to lumber through with sharp elbows, attack on the stump, and piss off everyone in the process. Appears he’s headed in the latter direction,” one GOP aide said.

But such talk doesn’t seem to be affecting Obama’s strategy at this point — nor that of Hill Democrats.

“He’s tried that, and it didn’t work,” said a senior Senate Democratic aide, who pointed to the stimulus plan, health care law and grand bargain talks.

“There’s a long, demonstrated history of that not working,” the aide said.

Obama included hundreds of billions in tax cuts in the stimulus and shrunk its size to appeal to the GOP; it netted him three votes in the Senate. On health care, he started off with a plan that looked a lot like Mitt Romney’s rather than a single-payer-style plan and spent months trying to woo Senate Republicans on the Finance Committee to no avail. And then there were the grand bargain talks last year, which repeatedly blew up over revenue.

Now, “the president is negotiating from a position of strength. The American people just elected him overwhelmingly, and they lost,” the senior Senate Democratic aide said.

And the aide questioned on what issue the GOP would suddenly engage in a detente with Obama if he plays nice with them now. The GOP wants entitlement reform and tax reform and needs immigration reform for their own long-term electoral survival, the aide said.

But the GOP aide contended Obama’s wish list has damaged his standing.

“The president’s strategy previously has been: Look like the reasonable one. He’s far ceded that mantle with the ridiculous move. He looks greedy and reckless,” the aide said.

Boehner, by contrast, has moved at least rhetorically by showing a willingness to raise significant revenue from the wealthy by shrinking their deductions.

The Senate aide rejected the notion that Obama and Democrats haven’t been reasonable. “We’ve already given $2 trillion in spending cuts,” the aide said of previous budget battles.

Finally, there is at least the chance that the Obama offer will make it easier in the end for Boehner to rally his troops for a compromise. Once he bargains down,Boehner will be able to point to a trophy wall of items from Obama’s opening bid that won’t make it to the finish line, including, almost certainly, the idea of eliminating Congress’ role in raising the debt ceiling.

But so far at least, the GOP isn’t buying that logic.

“This isn’t helpful to getting a deal and avoiding the cliff, no,” tweeted Rory Cooper, a spokesman for House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., in response to that idea.

And the audacity of the Obama bid had some in the GOP calling for just as audacious of a counter-offer.

“We should counter w/ 10 to 1 cuts to revenue, elimination of [the Department of Education], land sales, and a monument to Reagan on the National Mall,” tweeted Brian Phlllips, spokesman for Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah.

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