The Obama-Boehner Embrace: What Does It Mean?

The president's public support for the speaker can only help one of them

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The president's compassion was palpable. He was worried about John Boehner, Republican of Ohio.

"His politics within his caucus are very difficult," Barack Obama said of the speaker of the House, oozing empathy.

"I appreciate Speaker Boehner's good faith efforts" aimed at as sizeable a deficit and debt compromise as possible, Obama said.

What Boehner probably doesn't appreciate is the continued presidential praise of his own fair-mindedness. It's not what most of his caucus wants to hear. And every ounce of perceived coziness between the speaker and the president elevates House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) among the party's conservatives.

(RELATED: Debt Ceiling Is Obama's Problem, Says GOP)

The dalliance over a blockbuster pact late last week between Obama and Boehner, which the president confirmed at his press conference on Monday morning, is wonderful politics for Obama, little harmed by the deal's eventual collapse. That left Republicans backing out, once again, from the big-ticket fiscal talks, while Obama gets to claim he's the suitor of a deal with no takers.

What the White House wants is for Obama to be paired off against not John Boehner's Republican Party, but Ron Paul's and Michele Bachmann's. Obama and Boehner, in that campaign narrative, can be the two sensible principals in the middle, the honest and sane brokers who present a reassuring front for an edgy electorate that wants to see a president who can work with both sides.

(RELATED: Politics of Austerity Look Better Than Economics)

Which is what Boehner was trying to do before he got the hook from his conference on Saturday. The speaker, his aides said, thought he saw daylight for the type of "big thing" the president lamented was increasingly elusive in Washington: a deal to impose hard future spending caps, changes to the Big 3 entitlements, and tax reform aimed at a broader base and lower rates. When that window closed due to disagreements over both taxes and entitlements, it wasn't just because of Democratic intransigence but because Boehner had ranged far from what the powerful conservative elements of his coalition could stomach. Specifically, he was getting too close to Obama.

"What will Republicans do: cave in or show some spine?" asked a Club for Growth TV ad released Monday and due to start airing Tuesday on Fox News. "We already have one party committed to bigger government. We don't need another."

(RELATED: Charlie Cook--Get Out of the Comfort Zone)

The Club for Growth push - for no debt ceiling deal without a balanced budget amendment - lines up with the rightward tugs within the GOP caucus. And every time Obama points to Boehner as a willing negotiating partner, he's effectively isolating the speaker from that wing of his conference and his party.

In doing so, he's positioning Hill Republicans as too extremist even for their own leader, as reckless tea party hostages.

Internally, it's better for Boehner if Obama plays the resistant leftist: unwilling to budge on not just revenue increases, but entitlements as well. That was the Obama whom Boehner's office sought to depict Monday, blasting out a pair of e-mails excoriating the prospect of new taxes. But already the president has been distancing himself from the leftist factions of his own party, signaling a willingness to make a deal on entitlements that has enraged Democrats and others who see this as a violation of sacrosanct tenets of the Democratic cause.

Boehner himself professed none of the personal animus toward Obama that so clearly defines much of the Republican Party right now. "There clearly is no personality difference between the president and I. I get along with him fine," he said at his Capitol press conference.

But the speaker has been eager to underscore the policy differences with Obama. "The president continues to insist on raising taxes, and [Democrats] are just not serious enough about fundamental entitlement reform to solve the problem," Boehner said, adding, "It takes two to tango, and they're not there yet."

And: "The president and I do not agree on his view that government needs more revenues through higher taxes on job creators. The president and I also disagree on the extent of the entitlement problem and what is necessary in order to solve it." Loose translation: Get away from me, I got a conference to run.

"It's pretty clear the president's trying to play the external game to try to affect a little bit on the inside," said Ron Bonjean, a GOP strategist and former congressional aide. "Obama's style is trying to play this middle-of-the-road, I-feel-sorry-for-John thing. It obviously doesn't do [Boehner] any favors. Every time the president shows sympathy to Boehner, Boehner's got to come down more hard-line in both the public negotiations and in the room with his members."

This heightens the political advantage Obama could derive from this fight, but bodes ill for the prospects of an eventual deal. And that doesn't help anyone.

Image credit: Alex Hoyt/The Atlantic

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Jim O'Sullivan is chief analyst for National Journal Daily.

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