President Obama had just arrived home, walking across Lafayette Square after attending Sunday services with his family at St. John’s Church. In the West Wing, Obama ducked into the spacious office of his chief of staff, where he found his negotiating team huddled with two leading Republicans and a passel of aides.
To the outside world, it looked like a do-nothing summer Sunday, a disturbingly quiet reminder of government dysfunction. The prevailing theme on the weekly political talk shows was things falling apart. In two weeks, the government would be unable to pay its bills. Where were the administration and congressional leaders who might work out a compromise to avert the looming disaster? No meetings were taking place at the White House that day, one network host said.
The reality was quite different. Around 11 a.m. July 17, John A. Boehner, the House speaker, and Eric Cantor, the majority leader, had slipped through a side entrance, out of view from the bank of television cameras stationed near the front gate off Pennsylvania Avenue. The on-and-off secret negotiations were on again. They had resumed with a Friday meeting at the Capitol. And they seemed to be going so well by the time Obama returned from church that he invited Boehner and Cantor into the Oval Office to talk, just the three of them.
The sermon the president had heard that morning was a stirring Old Testament account of Jacob dreaming of a ladder that stretched to heaven. Sometimes, the pastor had said, “the best adventures occur when we venture into unmarked terrain.” Obama was in a similar frame of mind. Against the vehement advice of many Democrats, including some of his own advisers, Obama was pursuing a compromise with his ideological opponents, a “grand bargain” that would move into unmarked territory, beyond partisan divides, pushing both parties to places they did not want to go. Now might be the moment.
Months later, that moment and the tense, ultimately unsuccessful ones that followed have become a critical issue in Obama’s reelection campaign as the president and his Republican critics lay out competing narratives about his stewardship of the economy and the United States’ fiscal health.
Republicans say those days offer clear evidence that the president is fiscally reckless and determined to tax his way out of the nation’s mounting deficit and debt problems. A Washington Post-ABC News poll this month illustrates Obama’s lingering vulnerability: Only about a third of Americans approve of his handling of the deficit.
From the White House point of view, those few days show a politically selfless president willing to rise above the partisan fray and make difficult choices for the good of the country — if only obstinate Republicans would meet him halfway.
On that Sunday in July, Boehner, the old-school pol from Ohio, seemed willing to hash it out. He had met in private with the president and his aides many times. Their sessions were so sensitive — especially for the speaker, who was dealing with a House teeming with tea party rebels — that Obama’s aides were under strict orders to “protect Boehner” and not talk about his private entreaties. Obama liked Boehner; they got along well during the private sessions and a round of golf. But there was doubt in the White House as to whether the speaker could bring his party along. He “probably could not deliver a pizza,” was one administration aide’s skeptical assessment.
Cantor, a Virginian, was more closely aligned with the tea party wing. The fact that he was there, and had been involved since Friday, however reluctantly, was taken by the White House as an encouraging sign.
The conversation during that brief gathering inside the Oval Office did nothing to dampen the optimism. When the trio emerged and returned to the roomful of aides, Obama appeared upbeat.
“I want a deal,” he said.
The aides put down their muffins and BlackBerrys and snapped to attention.
Secrecy would be essential as the details came together, the president told everyone. He spoke openly with Boehner about how the two sides might sell the emerging plan to their respective parties, an imposing task from either end.
“How soon can we get this drafted?” the president asked, according to notes taken during the meeting by a top Republican staff member. When Obama left, the negotiations rushed forward, staffers on both sides now energized by the prospect of a deal.
Three days later, the grand bargain was cold and dead.
What happened? Obama and his advisers have cast the collapse of the talks as a Republican failure. Boehner, unable to deliver, stepped away from the deal, simple as that.