The first power showdown between Republican leaders in Congress and the White House is over what appears to be a relatively petty and insignificant matter: when to have a meeting among President Obama and both GOP and Democratic leaders at the White House to discuss the agenda for the incoming, divided government. But the undercurrent of the dispute is far more serious.
The White House had, erroneously, as it turns out, announced that the session would be held November 18. Republicans Wednesday said they had scheduling conflicts, adding that they had never received a formal invitation anyway—a disclosure that makes the White House appear a bit arrogant, a term conservatives have long attached to Obama. The meeting was re-scheduled for November 30.
If it's true that the GOP was not consulted at all about the date, that is arguably rude and presumptuous behavior on the part of the White House. But this isn't a lunch date between friends or a last-minute request to baby-sit. This is the president of the United States—the commander in chief and head of the country, whether the Republicans like it or not—summoning congressional leaders on matters of serious national importance. Both then-Senator Obama and GOP Sen. John McCain rushed back to the White House late in the 2008 campaign season because President Bush wanted to have an emergency meeting to avoid a complete economic and banking collapse. That was a big commitment from both men, who were in the last stages of an intensely-fought campaign. Would it be so difficult for GOP leaders to work around their caucus meetings and orientation sessions for new members to show the president the same courtesy?
But then, it's not just about scheduling conflicts. It's also reflective of an issue Obama has faced, unfairly, since he took office: the recognition of him as the legitimate leader of the country.
Some of it is a function of historical trends fomented by the press and the presidents alike. The media has sought to demystify the office of the presidency and has delved more aggressively into the personal lives and personalities of presidents. Candidates themselves have enabled this by freely relinquishing their right to any kind of privacy. Some demands for disclosure are defensible, but others cheapen the office as candidates seek to appear accessible and likeable. Then-candidate Bill Clinton, for example, should have dressed down the young person who had the bad taste to ask the soon-to-be president if he wore boxers or briefs.
But Obama has been thrown an extra hurdle, in part because of his race, and in part because of his relative inexperience in national politics. The so-called "birthers" continue to insist, despite clear evidence to the contrary, that Obama is not really the legitimate president because he wasn't really born in Hawaii. Others suggest that Obama is a secret Muslim, giving him the label of "other" that also is meant to delegitimize his role as head of the country.
What GOP lawmakers are doing doesn't remotely rise to that level (although Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, asked on Meet the Press about the rumors that Obama is really a Muslim, was weak in his defense of the truth, telling David Gregory, "the president says he's a Christian. I take him at his word. I don't think that's in dispute."). Still, their behavior and comments suggest that they see Obama as an equal. He's not. The executive and legislative branches are equal branches of government, but the president holds higher individual office than congressional leaders in either party.
McConnell, in the bipartisan healthcare summit at Blair House in February, complained during the meeting that the GOP was being short-changed on time:
Mr. President, could I just interject one quick point here very quick, just in terms of trying to keep everything fair, which I know you want to do. To this point, the Republicans have used 24 minutes, the Democrats 52 minutes. Let's try to have as much balance as we can.
Obama's immediate response was calm disbelief, telling the GOP leader, "I don't think that's quite right, but I'm just going back and forth here, Mitch."
And after a brief, more substantive exchange with the very substantive Republican Rep. Paul Ryan, Obama came back to the time-hog issue:
We've gone about 55 minutes on this section. We're running over because we went long on the opening statements. And you're right, there was an imbalance on the opening statements because I'm the President … I didn't count my time in terms of dividing it evenly. In this section, Mitch, we've gone back and forth pretty well.
McConnell's math might have been right, but only if one assumes that the president of the United States is somehow on the same level as the Democratic leaders and rank-and-file members who attended the meeting Obama hosted. That would be insulting to any president, regardless of party affiliation.
The Senate Republican leader now seems pleased that the president is paying more attention to him of late, telling The Wall Street Journal that Obama, after the Republicans scored huge gains in the elections, had called him twice in 24 hours. The minority leader added that he has not had "a whole lot of expressions of interest from him in the first two years." And indeed, McConnell has had just a single one-on-one meeting with Obama, on Aug. 4.
Congressional leaders in both parties understandably want to be heard by the sitting president. But they should remember that he is, after all, the president. And he outranks them.