WASHINGTON, April 19, 2015:
Just as Congress is hitting something of a bipartisan stride on such issues as Medicare, Iran and trade, President Barack Obama and his White House team have decided to go after their Republican critics, picking fights and scornfully calling them out by name.
In just the past week, the president and his spokesman have targeted Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Republican Sens. John McCain and Charles Grassley, on topics from climate change to the Iran nuclear deal.
On Friday, he used a news conference to deliver to senators a testy lecture about the delayed confirmation of attorney-general nominee Loretta Lynch.
This is a White House unleashed, forgoing niceties for the kind of blunt talk some of Obama’s allies have been demanding for some time. But the rhetoric carries risks of sounding peevish and signals that a president who once ran on the promise of changing the tone in Washington has fully embraced its political combat.
Obama on Friday decried the long wait Lynch has faced since she was nominated in early November.
“Enough. Enough!” he said, addressing Senate Republicans. “This is embarrassing, a process like this.”
Last Saturday, Obama hit McCain especially hard, after his 2008 presidential rival declared a major setback in the Iran nuclear talks after Iran’s supreme leader, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, demanded that sanctions against Teheran had to be lifted immediately after a deal went into place.
Obama cast McCain’s criticism as an assault on the credibility of Secretary of State John Kerry.
“That’s an indication of the degree to which partisanship has crossed all boundaries,” Obama said.
“That’s a problem. It needs to stop.”
He went on: “We have Mitch McConnell trying to tell the world, oh, don’t have confidence in the US government’s abilities to fulfill any climate change pledge that we might make.”
On Thursday, White House spokesman Josh Earnest singled out Grassley, noting that the Iowa senator had once urged Obama not to push through Lynch’s confirmation during the lame duck Senate in November and December but now said Democrats should have acted on her when they had a Senate majority. Earnest called Grassley’s stance “duplicitous.”
Asked how harsh words might help his cause, Earnest replied: “Being nice has gotten us a 160-day delay. So maybe after they look up ‘duplicitous’ in the dictionary we’ll get a different result.”
Republicans maintain Obama would be better off working on bipartisan efforts, such as trade.
Top lawmakers on Thursday revealed a bipartisan agreement to give Obama authority to negotiate trade deals without having to face delays in Congress. But many Democrats oppose such deals, fearing they will cost jobs or lower environmental standards.
“Rather than spending so much time criticizing people like Chuck Grassley and myself, he ought to be out there lining up the Democratic votes for trade promotion authority,” McConnell said in an interview Friday.
“This is a time for presidential leadership.”
On the White House needling, “We’re used to it,” said McConnell, who frequently jousts with Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid. “We used to get it from the Democratic leader routinely.”
As for Lynch, McConnell said, “The cheap shots at Grassley were particularly inappropriate.”
Lynch’s confirmation has been delayed because McConnell has wanted to pass a sexual trafficking bill through the Senate first. That bill has been held up because of Democratic objections to anti-abortion language in the bill. McConnell predicted the dispute would be resolved next week, opening the way for a vote on Lynch.
For many Democratic allies of the White House, Obama’s confrontational talk could have even come sooner.
The last two years of a second term are especially liberating for presidents. They don’t face re-election and they don’t feel they have much to lose legislatively by going on the offensive.