Obama Plays Hardball With GOP Governors in Chilly Meeting

The room turned 'chilled' when the president issued a veiled threat over National Guard funding. 

President Barack Obama speaks to the National Governors Association in the State Dining Room of the White House on Feb. 24, 2014, in Washington, D.C.

President Barack Obama speaks to the National Governors Association in the State Dining Room of the White House on Feb. 24, 2014, in Washington, D.C. 

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President Barack Obama rejected requests from Republican governors for increased flexibility on a variety of issues Monday, signaling a more confrontational approach with state leaders as election season approaches.

At one point during the morning meeting at the White House, the president even warned Republicans he would strike back if they complained about potential cuts to the National Guard.

“He said, ‘If I hear any of you pushing back, making statements about Washington spends too much money, you will hear from me.,’” recalled Texas Gov. Rick Perry during a news conference at the Chamber of Commerce following the meeting. “I don’t mind telling you I was a bit troubled today by the tone of the president.”

”He basically said, ‘Many people in this room have asked for cuts. Now you’re getting them,’” said South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley. “He said, ‘If somebody questions it, I’m going to have to say something about it. It chilled the room quite a bit.”

[READ: Democrats Look to Obama States for Governorship Gains]

Monday’s meeting was billed as a summit to grease the wheels for partnerships with states to address issues that have stalled in Washington due to gridlock in Congress. But afterward, Republicans expressed deep skepticism about progress on many fronts, and instead, laced into the president with a barrage of biting critiques..

“The Obama economy is the minimum wage economy. It’s increasingly evident this White House is waving the white flag of surrender when it comes to growth and opportunity,” said Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who led the delegation of GOP governors to the White House as vice chair of the Republican Governors Association. Jindal’s white-hot rhetoric just moments after exiting the West Wing could also be interpreted as an indication of his own presidential ambitions in 2016.

Haley, who faces a re-election campaign this year, said she is “more convinced now than ever [Obama] truly believes that government is the answer to creating jobs.”

In addition to her concerns about the Guard, she also said she was disappointed in Obama’s intransigence on higher education, recounting an exchange initiated by Jindal regarding school accreditation.

“And [Obama] actually said, ‘I can’t have a bunch of states going out there and accrediting schools and having all these bad schools out there,’” Haley said. “He just doesn’t understand that if you give us the ability, we can put good policy in place. He doesn’t believe that. He believes D.C. is the one to do that.”

But perhaps no issue irked the governors more than discussion surrounding the Pentagon’s plan to reduce the size of the Army as part of an across-the-board cut in defense.

“Democrat governors are very concerned, I would suggest to you, about what they heard today about the Guard,” said Perry, who is not running for re-election in Texas this year but has left open the possibility of another White House run.

[ALSO: Why GOP Energy Is Outside the Party Tent]

But Democratic governors stood by their president in public. While he was walking off the White House grounds, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper dubbed Jindal “a cheap shot artist,” according to The Associated Press.

While governors repeatedly invoked their success at achieving substantive accomplishments on the state level, the icy reception between Obama and Republican governors appeared to mirror the administration’s frayed relations with Congress.

There are 36 governors races on the ballot this year and Republicans are already using Obama as a battering ram in several, including the open seat race in Arkansas. With Jindal, Perry and RGA Chairman Chris Christie – who did not attend the White House meeting Monday – all eyeing runs for president, there’s little incentive for them to genuinely work with Obama, who remains loathed by the GOP base.

But in the coming months there may be one area of agreement: The Keystone XL Pipeline.

While the administration has stalled construction on the privately funded 1,664-mile project that would transport oil from Canada to Texas, Perry sounded an optimistic note about its future.

“The president is going to approve the XL Pipeline, just write it down. He’s going to approve the XL pipeline,” Perry said, calling it too important to job creation for the president to reject.

“Rick’s a lot more confident than I am that he’ll do the obvious, right thing. I hope that’s right,” mused Jindal.