The President Who Would Be King

By Romano, Andrew; Klaidman, Daniel | Newsweek, October 29, 2012 | Go to article overview

The President Who Would Be King


Romano, Andrew, Klaidman, Daniel, Newsweek


Byline: Andrew Romano and Daniel Klaidman

The Obama power play that could forever change the way Washington works.

Obama was gripping the telephone so tightly that it looked as if he were about to pulverize it in the palm of his hand.

Back in the spring of 2011, House Republicans had refused to raise the nation's debt ceiling unless the president first conceded to massive spending cuts--a gratuitous game of chicken that put the global economy at risk and defied decades of bipartisan Washington tradition. At the time, many Democrats, including Bill Clinton, were urging Obama to go it alone. I'd raise the debt ceiling on my own, "without hesitation," Clinton told a reporter. "[I'd] force the courts to stop me." But the White House insisted that unilateral action was "not an option."

Instead, Obama spent 44 days trying to forge a Grand Debt Bargain with John Boehner, the House Republican leader. The two politicians first negotiated over a round of golf at Andrews Air Force base. They haggled further while sipping merlot (Boehner) and iced tea (Obama) on the patio outside the Oval Office. Finally, at the 11th hour, Boehner and Obama seemed to agree on a plan that would slash domestic, defense, and entitlement spending by more than $1.65 trillion over 10 years.

But now it was Friday, July 22, 11 days before the debt-ceiling deadline, and Boehner was missing in action. Obama phoned the speaker three times. No response. And then, at 5:30 p.m., after 24 hours of radio silence, Boehner finally called the president back--to inform him that the deal was off. "I just couldn't do any more revenue," Boehner said. Obama was flabbergasted. "How do we put this back together again?" the president sputtered, tightening his hold on the handset. The speaker told him it was hopeless. Later, when asked to describe Obama's mood, Boehner would say that the commander in chief was "spewing coals," according to an account by Bob Woodward.

"The negotiations over the debt ceiling were astonishing to the president," recalls White House counsel Kathryn Ruemmler. "That really was a moment of 'wow.' It was a step beyond the regular Republican obstruction."

Late Sunday afternoon, Obama summoned his top lieutenants to the Oval Office. Something had changed. For months, Obama had been frustrated with congressional gridlock, which had intensified after Republicans took control of the House in January. And yet he'd always held out hope.

Not anymore. The Old Obama had pledged to usher in a golden age of bipartisan cooperation, then spent the first two and a half years of his tenure trying to meet the opposition in the middle. But the New Obama was fed up. Disillusioned. And he was done letting Congress stonewall his agenda.

These guys are willing to let the country go into default rather than negotiate a compromise, he said in disbelief. According to one participant, there was a recognition that the time had come to consider an audacious new governing strategy: what could Obama do without Congress?

Eleven months later, on June 15, 2012, the president strode into the Rose Garden to make an announcement. For the last five years, congressional Republicans had been blocking the DREAM Act: a bill designed to provide a conditional pathway to citizenship for immigrants who were brought to America illegally as children. Pressed by Latino advocates to take action, Obama had spent 2011 repeating that "we are doing everything we can administratively" because "this notion that somehow I can just change the laws unilaterally is not true." But now the president was doing something that he'd previously deemed impossible, and that Congress had repeatedly forbidden: singlehandedly granting relief to an entire category of young immigrants, as many as 1.7 million people, who'd otherwise be subject to deportation.

The reaction from Republicans was swift and severe. "The president's directive is an affront to our system of representative government and the legislative process, and it's an inappropriate use of executive power," thundered Sen.

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