It’s the season of peace and goodwill, but President Obama may have tested the limits of both with some comments at his end-of-year news conference.
Asked if he would negotiate with congressional Republicans about the debt ceiling, Obama said he wouldn’t do so over raising the limit, though he was willing to talk with Rep. Paul Ryan, the Wisconsin Republican and House Budget Committee chairman, about other issues, like tax reform.
But Obama was dismissive of Republicans who have signaled that they expect him to give something in return, like federal spending, for a debt-ceiling increase: “I’ve got to assume folks aren’t crazy enough to start that thing all over again,” he said Friday.
It generally isn’t helpful for a president to describe political opponents as crazy and expect much good to come from it. But that’s what Obama appeared to do.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich put the president’s comment in the same league as the one likening congressional Republicans to the Jonestown cult, made by John Podesta (before he was recently named a senior Obama counselor). Podesta has since apologized.
Republicans who want to tie a desirable (from their point of view) legislative outcome to the debt ceiling don’t consider it crazy. Their position is that numerous precedents exist for their position. Fact checkers agree with them. “We’re going to decide what it is we can accomplish out of this debt limit fight,” Ryan recently told Fox News.
Obama also may not have done himself any favors by seemingly questioning the motives of members of Congress, both Democrats and Republicans, who have called for tougher sanctions on Iran.
The president’s position is that previous sanctions are what brought Iran to the talks meant to stop that nation’s move toward the capability to build nuclear weapons, and that even the threat of new sanctions could derail negotiations.
“And so I’m not surprised that there’s been some talk from some members of Congress about new sanctions,” Obama said. “I think the politics of trying to look tough on Iran are often good when you’re running for office or if you’re in office.”
Some of Obama’s strongest Senate supporters — Democrats Charles Schumer of New York and Robert Menendez of New Jersey — have led the push for additional sanctions against Iran.
Having their efforts reduced to pure politics by the president most assuredly wasn’t the kind of holiday gift they were looking for.