Why President Obama is picking fights with Congress

President Obama is pictured. | AP Photo

It would be a mistake to attribute all of Obama’s actions to dispassionate tactics. | AP Photo

  • Because revenge is a dish best served cold?
  • He hates them for making him look weak these past four years?
  • Because he can?
  • All of the above?

Politico

Barack Obama is looking for a few good fights.

Obama, the same president who campaigned twice on breaking the cycle of conflict in Washington, sees the utility — even the necessity — of rattling Republican cages as he plunges into a succession of upcoming battles over the nomination of Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense, the debt ceiling, $1 trillion in automatic budget cuts, immigration reform and gun control.

(Also on POLITICO: Senate vs. President Obama over Cabinet)

Obama’s willingness to take a more overtly adversarial stance is, in part, a nod to the reality that he’s about to start his second term with solid approval numbers — “Hit now, as hard as you can, because your power starts to die in six, eight months,” according to a top aide to a Senate Republican who has often locked horns with the White House.

That entails taking a tough line with the Hill GOP on Hagel — who has vowed to battle “distortions” of his record on Iran and Israel — and stiff-arming the GOP at the start of negotiations over the debt ceiling and across-the-board spending cuts. It’s less clear whether Obama will be quite as bellicose on issues that require a more subtle approach, like immigration, guns and climate change, although his aides are talking tough.

(Also on POLITICO: Why Obama picked Hagel)

Picking a few choice fights “is a very good strategy if you know that applying all that pressure gets you the result you are looking for,” said former White House press secretary Robert Gibbs, an adviser to Obama’s 2012 campaign. “But if you pick a fight, you have to be sure the tactic helps ensure the result you want rather than making it harder to achieve.”

There’s also a long-term strategy: Two months after a decisive presidential win, Obama and his party already are eyeing the 2014 midterms. Highlighting the contrasts between the White House and congressional Republicans could flip the House back to Democrats, giving Obama a final two-year governing majority that bookends the one he enjoyed during his first two years in office.

But it would be a mistake to attribute all of Obama’s actions to dispassionate tactics. After four-plus years of embittered partisan combat, he views his GOP bargaining partners with more than a little contempt, and he momentarily vanquished enemies who just can’t say “yes” to him.

His apparent conclusion, after watching the implosion of the House GOP’s effort to pass a modest tax increase before the final fiscal cliff deal, is that the best way to deal with the Capitol is to throw rocks at it — then send Vice President Joe Biden in to clean up the glass.

(PHOTOS: What they’re saying about Chuck Hagel)

“There are 536 people who will be negotiating deals — the House, the Senate and the president,” an Obama aide said. “Only one of them isn’t running for reelection again. That gives us leverage.”

Republicans see parallels between Obama’s recent tough-guy stance — he practically dared the GOP to shoot down Hagel, one of their own, during an East Room ceremony Monday — and his aggressive push for the stimulus and health reform bills early in his first term.

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