On a warm Saturday in June of 2011, President Obama and Speaker John Boehner finally played a round of golf together. Prodded by an official Washington eager for some signal that compromise was not dead, their conversations in the golf cart and over drinks afterward fueled a month of optimism that the two most powerful men in Washington could bridge the chasm between them.
The collapse of those negotiations over taxes and spending has been exhaustively chronicled. It was the non-deal that birthed a thousand tick-tocks—we know where the president and the speaker met, what they ate, who smoked, and who chewed nicotine gum. All involved were so busy taking contemporaneous notes and preserving emails, it's a wonder they came as close to an agreement as they did.
Yet the reasons for that failure are relevant again now, two tumultuous elections later, in a city that has grown so much more partisan and dysfunctional that the idea of Republicans and Democrats casually exchanging trillion-dollar offers seems quaint.
Obama is now in the final quarter of his presidency, his name never to grace another national ballot. Boehner, though without a fixed expiration date, is almost certainly nearing the end of a three-decade journey in politics. Both have been public in their desire to enact the "big deal," the memorable, dramatic piece of bipartisan legislation that requires ample sacrifice and alters the trajectory of government. Both now risk ending their careers without one.
The outgoing Congress was historically unproductive, by almost any measure. The two parties have been unable to agree on the littlest of things, much less band together to accomplish the big ones. Whether the 114th Congress will be any different depends in part on the GOP-controlled Senate, where new Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will need 60 votes to get most things done and will be preoccupied with protecting a host of potentially vulnerable Republicans who face reelection in 2016. In the House, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi will keep a wary eye on Obama for signs he might triangulate her out of a seat at the bargaining table, if that table is set at all.
But the primary actors over the next two years will be Boehner and Obama, leaders still in search of legacies.
(Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)Obama doesn't want to leave office as the man who lost both chambers of Congress for his party, along with the trust and goodwill of the majority of the voting public. But that is exactly where he is now, after a 2014 midterm election season that saw his own Democrats distance themselves from his policies, refuse his help on the trail, and suffer a walloping attributed in great part to his failures. And Boehner doesn't want to be known as the speaker who did the best he could—but not much—with an impossible hand: a Republican Conference stocked with lawmakers who revel in being no-compromise conservatives. He doesn't want to be a speaker who tried to find common ground with a Democratic president—but never could.
Their differences aren't so much about substance; the basic pieces of a bipartisan tax-reform deal are at hand, and many ingredients of an (admittedly controversial) immigration package are, too. Agreements on spending, trade, and education also look feasible, in theory.
"It all boils down to what the president wants to do," said former Republican Rep. Steve LaTourette of Ohio, a Boehner ally. "If the president takes the view that he'd like these things as his legacy, I think he'll find two people in McConnell and Boehner who will work very hard to put together the 218 and 51 votes needed to make that happen."
But enormous, deal-killing divisions remain over process, politics, and—above all—trust.
Not since George Washington has any president made such a compelling and lasting mark on history simply with his election as did Obama in 2008, when he shattered a two-century-old "whites-only" barrier. He will always be the first black president, his name attached to school buildings, boulevards, and monuments, even if it is never affixed to another piece of memorable legislation.
Not that he has been without policy achievements. Within 18 months of his first inauguration, Obama signed into law a massive economic-stimulus package, a sweeping health care reform bill, and a measure tightening restrictions on Wall Street. He has, with varying degrees of success (and significant second-guessing), withdrawn America from wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and he has overseen an economy that appears today to be on surer footing.
Yet he is also the president with high aspirations brought low by his own mistakes, the stubbornness of his foes, and the turbulence of world affairs. He risks leaving office having achieved no major domestic milestones in the last several years of his administration, as the president whose political toxicity drove away his party's candidates and left the capital even more divided than he found it.
The question for Obama is how much more he wants to accomplish and whether the next two years will afford him an opportunity to make a broader mark. To his confidants, he has shown an interest in his legacy, though not to the point of obsession. "I don't think he's consumed by it," says former Democratic Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota, a longtime informal Obama adviser. Bill Burton, a former aide to Obama's campaign and White House, says the president is "a student of history, and he's a human being, so I'm sure there are moments where those sorts of things creep into his head. But it truly, honestly, is not his focus."
Obama is certainly interested in how history has judged his predecessors, and he has annually invited a small group of high-profile presidential historians to the White House. Attendees have come away with the sense that he is especially concerned with his foreign policy legacy. "I was surprised by how much he relates to President Eisenhower. He seemed very keen and up-to-date on everything with Ike," says Rice University historian Douglas Brinkley. The parallel, Brinkley says, is that both men extracted the nation from wars they inherited.
At a meeting in April—before the threat of the Islamic State was regular front-page news—Obama told the group, "I think my legacy in foreign policy is that I didn't make any big mistakes," according to David Kennedy, the Stanford University historian. In recent months, critics argue, such mistakes have begun to pile up. And Daschle predicts that "he's going to be forced, as many presidents are in their last two years, to spend their time on a whole array of foreign challenges."
On the domestic front, Kennedy says, Obama has quizzed the assembled scholars "less about great conceptual questions and more about 'how did President X get this thing done?' " In his pre-candidacy memoir The Audacity of Hope, then-Sen. Obama wrote approvingly of some of Bill Clinton's best-known centrist achievements, including welfare reform and "putting the nation's fiscal house in order." All were accomplished with a fully Republican Congress, like the one that awaits Obama in January. "By the time Clinton left office," Obama wrote, "it appeared as if some equilibrium had been achieved—a smaller government, but one that retained the social safety net FDR had put into place."
Obama is certainly interested in how history has judged his predecessors.
The main question Republicans have, according to Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, is whether Obama "wants to adopt the Clinton model" of reaching out to his adversaries. "You can do big things in a period of divided government, but you have to have people who want to be constructive," says Thune, who sits third in the Senate GOP leadership. "If the past is any guide to the future, we think it's unlikely that he'll want to engage in doing any of these big things."
Many Republicans in congressional leadership offices believe that Obama got most of his wish list done during his first two years as president: economic stimulus, health care, and financial reform. Now, as a senior Senate GOP aide put it, Obama "will keep doing things on the regulatory side rather than coming to Congress to do things." That means the White House will continue to implement the strategy Obama has set in motion over the past two years, going it alone on everything from carbon emissions to immigration.
Still, not every Republican is so downbeat about this White House. "I'm not one of those pessimists who think he has totally disengaged with Congress," says Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio. The newly elected GOP majority "gets Obama to the table in ways that he is not currently interested or able," Portman argues.
Even so, the issues that engage both Obama and congressional Republicans are few. "It's hard to believe that tax reform is at the top of his list for legacy accomplishments," quips a top Senate Democratic aide.
Obama's history lessons have surely taught him that few recent presidents notched major achievements in their final two years. After his impeachment in 1998, Bill Clinton signed the Gramm-Leach-Bliley financial-services bill in 1999 and permanent normal trade relations with China in 2000. But his bigger bipartisan ventures—welfare reform and the balanced-budget deal—happened earlier. Clinton spent the final months of his presidency trying in vain to strike a Middle East peace agreement.
Boehner and Obama tried to find common ground on the links in 2011. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)George W. Bush, like Obama, saw his party lose badly in the second midterm election held during his presidency. He pushed hard for immigration reform, only to see a compromise bill fail in the Senate in 2007. On immigration and his earlier unsuccessful effort at Social Security reform, Bush at least got credit from some quarters for trying.
The biggest knock on Obama, particularly in his second term, from Republicans and some Democrats, is that he lacks political courage. From immigration and climate change to Syria and Ukraine, he's been seen as too risk-averse. To dispel that notion in the next Congress, he'll need a partner—one who suggested to Obama, a month before their round of golf: "Come on, you and I, let's lock arms and we'll jump out of the boat together."
When John Boehner arrived in Washington in 1991, the 41-year-old from Ohio appeared an unlikely candidate ever to become an elder statesman—or the adult in any room. Nearly two decades before the tea-party movement reared its head, he made his name as one of a small group of conservative House freshmen, the Gang of Seven, known for their aggressive floor attacks on the Democratic majority.
Boehner quickly ascended the ranks to become Republican Conference chairman, leading the messaging efforts of the new majority after the 1994 GOP sweep. Within four years, he was out of leadership, the fall guy after an aborted coup against Speaker Newt Gingrich and a humbling loss of seats in the 1998 election.
That's when Boehner's evolution began. He threw himself into committee work, and by 2001 he was chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, just in time for the arrival of a president, George W. Bush, who was committed to education reform. The resulting No Child Left Behind bill was the product of an oddball collective effort hard to imagine today, with Boehner and Republican Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire sitting down and cutting a deal with two liberal Democrats—Rep. George Miller of California and Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts.
For better or worse, that measure marked Boehner as a deal-maker—a bit of Washington praise that has turned into an epithet in this hyper-partisan era. But while the political environment has changed, Boehner hasn't, even as he now leads a conference seemingly allergic to compromise.
Until this summer, Republicans who know Boehner well believed there was a strong chance he would leave the House at the end of 2014. He never said so publicly, but the speaker left just enough potential clues—his purchase of a Florida condo, a few blunter-than-usual public comments criticizing some of his GOP members—that retirement looked like a real possibility. Then came June 10 and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor's stunning loss in his Republican primary in Virginia. Despite their uneasy relationship, Boehner had viewed Cantor as the only viable candidate to succeed him as speaker.
Aides and lawmakers close to Boehner say that if he thinks current House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California is ready for the promotion, he may decide to make the 114th Congress his last. If the succession is less clear—and if Republicans capture the White House, giving Boehner a more willing partner—then he might stay longer.
But uncertainty about the heir apparent isn't the only reason for Boehner to stay in Washington. "I think John wants to be a difference-maker," says Thune, a friend from their days together in the House. "He wants his speakership to be a consequential one. He kind of made a decision, probably more recently, to hang around for that reason."
Kevin Madden, a former Boehner aide, says the speaker wants desperately to dispel the notion that the House is broken. "Right now, what drives John in his day-to-day dealings within his own conference, with the Senate and the White House, is that he wants to fix this perception the public has that the institution is dysfunctional. He wants it functional again," Madden says. "Whatever he can do, whether it's incremental steps to change that perception or it's one big dramatic step, it's going to be on the table."
Though Boehner has called the collapse of the 2011 talks "the biggest disappointment I've had as speaker," he has also said he believes the negotiating format—two men meeting furtively in the White House, deliberately keeping most details from their respective sides and the public—was a mistake, an undemocratic experiment not to be replicated.
Before long, Washington will revert to campaign politics, leaving little room for policy discussions.
LaTourette laid out Boehner's priorities in this order: "He'd very much like to have the big economic deal—he'd like to have comprehensive tax reform, he'd like to solve this problem about the spiraling debt. This is why he snuck in the back door of the White House in 2011, against the will of a lot of people in the caucus, to try and make that deal."
It would be especially hard for Boehner to return to a one-on-one negotiating format if he doesn't trust the motives of the man sitting across from him. "I think he was frustrated by that, because he felt that things got very close, and he thought the goalposts got moved on him," says David Winston, a GOP pollster and longtime adviser to Boehner, echoing the speaker's own words about the episode. Despite that, Winston says, "if the potential outcome is positive enough for the country, you have to try it again, and I think you'd see him do it."
But to Democrats, the goalposts issue is irrelevant because Boehner would have been unable to sell any of the offers in play to his conference. He never had the coercive power over his members that previous speakers wielded, a weakness that would only grow over the following two years. "The big lesson that everyone learned there was that Boehner did not come to the table with any particular strength," Burton says. "He wasn't able to cut deals."
These are not the words of two teams eager to work with one another again. Certainly, some bipartisan cooperation is inevitable in the 114th Congress, simply because there are deadlines to meet. First up is the debt ceiling, which will have to be raised at some point after mid-March. Neither Boehner nor McConnell has an appetite for another government shutdown, so while Obama will again demand a clean debt-ceiling increase and Republicans will certainly seek to extract some spending or policy concessions, a drawn-out stalemate looks unlikely.
And as of June 1, the Highway Trust Fund will need to be replenished, and portions of the USA Patriot Act will be due for reauthorization. The legislation behind the Export-Import Bank, which was temporarily renewed in October, is set to expire June 30. And Obama could use the new Republican majority to push for Trade Promotion Authority—allowing the president to negotiate trade deals and submit them to Congress for a quick vote—the rare issue on which he agrees more with the GOP than with his own party.
Neither the speaker nor the president can make his mark alone. (Dennis Brack-Pool/Getty Images)But that could well be it for the next two years, barring some precipitating crisis—such as an influx of migrants at the border or a sudden decline in the fiscal health of Social Security—that pushes the players to act against their short-term political interests. Before long, Washington will revert to campaign politics ahead of the next presidential contest, leaving little room for substantive policy discussions. That means that opportunities for either the president or the speaker to draft, and then get passed, a measure that would lift them both in the eyes of historians will be scant.
On immigration, GOP lawmakers say they are done with the idea of a comprehensive reform package with pieces to love and hate for both sides. Instead, if they pursue immigration at all in the 114th Congress, it will be piece by piece, starting with border security and then, perhaps, moving on to address high-tech visas and other topics on which there is some bipartisan agreement. But for Democrats, that step-by-step path leads nowhere, because, at the end, Republicans would have no incentive to cooperate on a measure that grapples with the single issue most important to the Left: the status of the 11 million undocumented immigrants now in the country. Indeed, Obama has so little faith that any mutually beneficial progress can be made that he has already signaled the coming of an executive order halting deportations.
Comprehensive tax reform won't be the vehicle for a legacy-creating deal, either. Republicans refuse to support a package that increases revenue by raising taxes, while Democrats will go along only if it does. Even if a narrower package of reforms to the corporate tax code gains bipartisan support—based on either the plan unveiled in February by retiring House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp or another to be written by Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, who wants the job in the 114th—it likely won't touch the individual tax code, where voters' favorite deductions (think mortgage tax credit) live. So although some Republicans say they've gotten signals from the White House that Obama does want to do corporate tax reform, the House Budget Committee's top Democrat is skeptical agreement can be reached, because House Republicans won't do corporate reform without a much broader revision of the tax code. "I really don't see comprehensive tax reform," says Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland. "I'd like to see it, but I don't."
But there's one bill that might open a door to both Obama and Boehner. It happens to be the one that helped Boehner make his name as a legislator.
House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline, a close Boehner ally, says he believes "all the pieces are there" for a bipartisan rewrite of the No Child Left Behind law. And even though Boehner helped write the original bill, "he understands the shortfalls of the law and the problems it is causing."
The speaker has other education priorities. In September, Boehner, addressing the American Enterprise Institute, outlined what he called the five steps toward a better economic future. The plan hit familiar Republican notes: simplifying the tax code, cutting spending, pruning regulations, and reforming the legal system. Toward the end, Boehner cited an education program that is relatively small but of outsized personal importance to him: the D.C. Opportunity Scholar-ship Program.
Each year, the federal government hands the District of Columbia $20 million to pay for the private-school tuition of low-income students. Many students use the money to attend the city's Catholic schools, another longtime pet cause of Boehner's. (He has joined Democrats, including the late Edward Kennedy, to host charity dinners to benefit the schools, some of which are struggling financially.) Boehner is known for his propensity to cry in public, and nothing brings on the tears more quickly than the plight of underprivileged children and the idea of affording them the same shot at a Catholic school education that he got in Cincinnati.
Boosting the D.C. program was one of the first things Boehner did as speaker, and at AEI he suggested that "the first federally funded private school choice initiative in America" could grow even further. Boehner said the program has been a success, "and so why wouldn't we go ahead and start expanding this program to the rest of the country?"
Boehner and Obama have haggled here before. Despite opposition from the teachers unions, from many Hill Democrats, and from some (but not all) of the District's Democratic leaders, Obama agreed to increased funding for the scholarship program in 2011 as part of a broader spending deal to avert a government shutdown.
The scholarships themselves are too small to serve as the vehicle for any major legislation. But they could help grease the wheels for bigger and better things. In early 2011, before that year's spending deal—and before their fateful round of golf—Boehner acknowledged that a concession by Obama on scholarships could smooth discussions on other fronts.
"Of course it would," Boehner said. "It's human nature. He's got things that are important to him; I've got things that are important to me."
Ben Pershing is Washington editor of National Journal, overseeing White House and congressional coverage. Before joining National Journal in 2014, he was a reporter at the Washington Post for six years, covering Congress as well as campaigns in D.C., Maryland and Virginia. Prior to that, Pershing was at Roll Call for 10 years as a reporter and editor. He is a Los Angeles native and a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley.