By John T. Bennett, CQ-Roll Call (TNS)
WASHINGTON—President Barack Obama repeatedly had to raise his voice to be heard over cheering Democratic lawmakers during his State of the Union address on Jan. 12. But Speaker Paul D. Ryan sat motionless, his face frozen in a polite — but unimpressed — expression.
Obama used part of his likely final address to a joint session of Congress to extol policy whims long pushed by Democrats like pre-kindergarten “for all” children and a government-led effort to “to make college affordable for every American.” He also called it a “basic fact” that the U.S. “has the strongest, most durable economy in the world,” saying the country is “in the middle of the longest streak of private-sector job creation in history.”
During that section of the State of the Union address and minutes later when Obama declared “anyone claiming that America’s economy is in decline is peddling fiction,” however, Ryan sat stone-faced. And when Ryan submitted a question for the president during a Twitter question-and-answer session last week, it went unaddressed.
Does this recent chilliness, along with critical rhetoric from each side about the other, suggest the honeymoon between the second-term president and reluctant speaker is over? Or has the relationship merely quickly settled into a normal president-speaker relationship when they hail from opposite parties: professional but sometimes-contentious?
Aides say the two leaders have chatted only a handful of times since the Wisconsin Republican ascended to the speakership. They describe a cordial — enough — relationship, and they always are quick to point out their vast ideological differences.
And that often-mentioned meeting at the White House? Still not on the calendar.
The speaker’s office offered a description of the two men’s relationship that is almost clinical. In essence, the message from inside Ryan World, to use a modern phrase, is this: The relationship is what it is.
A Ryan aide described the leaders’ relationship as “cordial and professional so far,” noting Obama and Ryan “have spoken on several occasions over the last couple months.
“Like any speaker and president of opposite parties, there is plenty that they disagree on. But they have both expressed a willingness to work together where there is common ground,” the aide said. “For example, they have both acknowledged there is room for compromise in the areas of trade and criminal justice reform.”
Ryan provided a window into his views of Obama during an interview Sunday on Fox.
“I think he’s very political. I think he erects what I call intellectual straw men arguments,” Ryan said. “He affixes views to people that they do not have in order to win the debate in an intellectually lazy way.
“I think he’s been the most polarizing president we’ve had in my lifetime, and I think he tries to shift blame for his own mistakes onto other people,” the speaker added. Ryan called Obama’s address a “fairly partisan and political speech,” and panned him because “I think he sees the world as what he wishes it would be, not what it is.”
White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough downplayed the importance of the two getting on like old chums during a meeting with reporters last week.
But other than noting Obama referred to the still-new speaker several times during his final State of the Union address, McDonough opted against describing their relationship, saying the White House will focus on scoring more legislative victories and “making sure these institutions work.”
There is a sense among senior aides to both men, and among some longtime Washington hands, that their relationship does not have to be rosy for them to accomplish the few 2016 agenda items they share.
“The word honeymoon is overused in American politics,” said William Galston, a former aide to President Bill Clinton now with the Brookings Institution. “There are significant differences on policies between the two parties, and the leaders of both are going to reflect that.
“Both men have the image of cool intellectuals. They’re both guided by facts not emotions,” Galston said. “There is no reason they cannot have civil conversations. In principle, though, they should be able to do some things together.”
To be sure, however, some of the rhetoric used by each side about the other in recent weeks has been less than civil.
For instance, Ryan has taken to cable news multiple times to slam the president.
In mid-November, the speaker went on Fox News Channel and called an Obama veto threat of a House bill to step up oversight of a federal refugee program “remarkably unpresidential.”
Ryan also has told Fox that Obama “clearly does not respect the Second Amendment,” accusing him of trying to “intimidate” law-abiding gun enthusiasts. And the White House has dinged Ryan for what it calls an “alarming” flip-flop on firearms background checks.
And one of Ryan’s first major legislative acts as wielder of the gavel was to send Obama a bill that would have repealed his signature health care law.
But Galston says the party’s 2012 vice presidential candidate “doesn’t have much of a choice” but to throw rhetorical elbows toward Obama.
“He is the leader of a very frustrated Republican caucus,” Galston said. “So he had no choice but to be instrumental in getting a health law repeal to the president’s desk. Ryan has to give the most uncompromising members of his caucus something to hang onto going into the elections.”
While it appears to have cooled, the relationship got off to a warm start.
White House officials had polite things to say about the former Budget Committee chairman and 2008 GOP vice presidential nominee during his first days in his new job.
On the first day of Ryan’s speakership, Oct. 29, White House press secretary Josh Earnest noted Obama “has spoken publicly in the past about the respect that he has for Congressman Ryan, despite their … significant policy differences.” He described the president as “hopeful” that he and the new speaker would “make progress on behalf of the American people.”
He added that, for legislation to be passed by a GOP Congress and signed by a Democratic president, it would have to be bipartisan. “The president is hopeful that Speaker Ryan will lead the House of Representatives in that spirit and with that fact in mind,” Earnest said, offering the new speaker some unsolicited advice.
Such upbeat assessments of the relationship have been sprinkled into the White House’s public statements since.
For instance, on Dec. 15, Earnest said officials expect Ryan to help the White House obtain congressional approval for a sweeping trade pact with Asian countries. And on Nov. 3, Obama’s top spokesman declared Ryan’s vote for a year-end spending and tax package an “encouraging sign.”
“If Speaker Ryan does determine that he wants to try to get some things done, and he is willing to try to compromise with Democrats to advance the governing agenda that he’s laid out, he will find a very willing partner in the Oval Office,” Earnest said.
But signs the honeymoon would be short lived first appeared just days after Ryan replaced the beleaguered John A. Boehner as speaker.
“A guy who was part of a Republican leadership team that spent more than a year blocking legislation that would make a historic investment in border security is now suggesting he wants to work with the president on border security,” Earnest said on Nov. 3. “It’s a little hard to take seriously. I mean, I would think in terms of our sort of analysis of Speaker Ryan’s trajectory, I think this is sort of … disappointing evidence that we’ve received so far.”
That elbow was followed immediately by another, with Earnest alleging a “political calculation” and calling that “disappointing.”
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Photo: U.S. President Barack Obama (L) is greeted by Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R) as he arrives to deliver his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress in Washington, January 12, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst