Nothing angers President Obama and his allies more than suggesting that he bears even the minutest responsibility for resolving sequestration and the broader budget fights. He claims to be powerless to overcome a stubbornly antitax Republican Party -- short of executing a "Jedi mind-meld."
Democratic Rep. Joaquin Castro doesn't think it takes a Vulcan to deal with Republicans. Clear and strong leadership at the White House would suffice. "I think he needs to be a leader in the negotiation," said the freshman House member from Texas who, along with his twin brother, San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, is a rising political star.
In a joint conversation that I moderated Tuesday for the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce, the Castro brothers expressed concern that sequestration would hurt the U.S. economy and jeopardize thousands of military jobs in San Antonio.
"I've only been here two months "¦ ," Joaquin Castro said before being interrupted by his one-minute-older identical twin, the mayor, who last summer became the first Latino to deliver a keynote address at the Democratic National Convention.
"That was the don't-blame-me" moment, the major razzed his brother.
"It really is the first time in my life that I'm a part of something that I know is not popular," the representative chuckled.
"And this guy was a lawyer before!" The audience roared with laughter as the mayor added, "You're lower than lawyers!" Joaquin Castro smiled and waited for the laughter to subside before turning serious.
"I feel as though the biggest obstacle to the recovery of the economy is the Congress, and I think that is a very sad statement for the country," said the lawmaker who was elected president of the House Democrats' freshman class and awarded high-profile assignments on the Armed Services and Foreign Affairs committees. "The Congress needs to get out of the way."
At this point he had not strayed from White House talking points: After raising taxes on the wealthy in 2012, House Republicans refused to stop sequestration by bowing to the president's demands for a "balanced approach" -- a deficit-reduction plan that includes both new taxes and spending cuts. Obama's approach is unassailable, and sequestration is the Republicans' fault alone, the White House says; there is nothing a president could do to responsibly stop it.
Unless you talk to Democratic lawmakers and operatives, including some close to the White House, who privately say that Obama is personally disengaged from Congress and is a bit too much of an absolutist on his opinions. Normally, such hearsay comes only from officials who are promised anonymity.
Joaquin Castro went there, cautiously.
What is the president's responsibility for sequestration? "Well, I think you saw him, for example, get into serious talks Friday, March 1."
The audience chuckled. "A little late, don't you think?" I said.
The representative and the mayor smiled at each other. The mayor raised an eyebrow as if to tell his twin, "Good luck, Congressman." "The deadline had passed," I said.
"Certainly," Joaquin replied.
What else could the president have done?
"I think you've got to bring everybody to the table. We're going to have to figure out a way to make sure that we're dealing with our debt in a long-term way that's not squeezing everything into this short period of time," the lawmaker replied. "We believed that we are hopeful, that [Republicans] will give on some of these tax loopholes, closing some of these tax loopholes "“ that we'll do it in some kind of balanced way." He urged his colleagues to stop fighting over the debt limit.
"Let me get back to my question," I said. "Does the president have any responsibility?"
"Oh, absolutely," Castro replied, "absolutely."
"What could [Obama] have done better?"
"I think that he needs to be a leader in the negotiation, that he has a responsibility to bring both sides to the table, to be clear about what he's offered and what he expects from the other side," the freshman said.
"And also I think that my sense in Washington "“ independent of the president or [House] speaker or Senate majority leader "“ is, a lot of battles are fought out in the media rather than talked out in person. People tend to communicate in the press a lot," Joaquin Castro said. "That may work on a lot of issues, but on something like this, that's not the right way to go."