Washington • President Barack Obama needled a GOP senator Tuesday, then praised Republicans working to solve the immigration riddle. He pledged to re-engage with Congress to close the U.S. detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, then decried the intractability of Congress. He cast Republicans as potential allies, then criticized their obstruction.
When it comes to his relations with Congress, President Barack Obama is a man of two minds.
"It comes as no surprise, not even to the American people but even members of Congress themselves, that right now things are pretty dysfunctional up on Capitol Hill," Obama said during a news conference marking the 100th day of his second term. "Despite that, I'm actually confident that there are a range of things that we're going to be able to get done."
The limits of Obama's success with Congress have dogged his presidency since Republicans won control of the House in 2010. A fiscal "grand bargain" containing tax increases and long-term spending reductions has eluded him. The automatic budget cuts that he once vowed "will not happen," kicked in March 1. His push to win an expansion of background checks for buyers of firearms succumbed in the Senate.
During his 47-minute appearance in the White House briefing room, Obama's answers illustrated the complicated and sometimes contradictory approach he has taken in his dealings with lawmakers.
At one point, he complimented Republican senators with whom he has met, saying they appear to have a "genuine desire" to get beyond the gridlock of Washington. Yet moments before, he offered a scornful response to an assertion by Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., that national security protections have deteriorated since he became president.
"Graham is not right on this issue," Obama said, "although I'm sure he generated some headlines."
He was dismissive when a questioner asked: "Do you still have the juice to get the rest of your agenda through this Congress?"
"If you put it that way," he told ABC's Jonathan Karl, "maybe I should just pack up and go home. Golly."
Paraphrasing Mark Twain, he added: "Rumors of my demise may be a little exaggerated at this point."
He pointed to efforts to overhaul immigration law, applauding the work of a bipartisan group of senators who have proposed a bill that in addition to calling for a secure border would create a path toward citizenship for 11 million immigrants illegally in the country. He said he has had "some good conversations" with Republican senators on the consequences of the current budget cuts, known as "sequestration" in budget terms, and insisted that the solution requires Democrats and Republicans to compromise.
Obama's response was reminiscent of though less defensive than one given by President Bill Clinton in 1995 when he was forced to declare that "the president is still relevant." It was arguably one of the lowest points in Clinton's presidency up to that moment. All that changed the following day when domestic terrorists blew up the Oklahoma City federal building, and Clinton re-established himself as a national leader.
Obama, who has had to play a similar role in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings and a deadly fertilizer plant explosion in Texas, defended the limits of his influence, casting himself in the role of persuader, not enforcer.
"I cannot force Republicans to embrace those common-sense solutions," he said. "I can urge them to. I can put pressure on them. I can rally the American people around those common-sense solutions. But ultimately, they, themselves, are going to have to say, we want to do the right thing."
He complained that the challenge facing implementation of his health care reform law is, "You've got half of Congress who is determined to try to block implementation and not adequately funding implementation." He also said there are Republican governors "who know that it's bad politics for them to try to implement this effectively."
Obama has been engaged in a new charm offensive lately, reaching out to Republicans, particularly in the Senate. He has invited about two dozen of them for dinner and has spoken to the Senate and House Republican caucuses. But he and his aides bristle at the idea that he does not use the power of the presidency well enough to win his way with Congress.
At a black-tie dinner Saturday, Obama took note of a column by New York Times writer Maureen Dowd, who criticized the White House for not deploying "pit-bull legislative aides" to secure votes as a fictional president played by Michael Douglas had done in the movie "The American President."
"Michael, what's your secret, man?" Obama joked. "Could it be that you were an actor in an Aaron Sorkin liberal fantasy?"
If Obama's relations with Republicans are complex, they are also fraught with the liberal wing of his own party.
Even as he reiterated his call for a large fiscal compromise to replace the sequester, a coalition of liberal groups launched a campaign Tuesday to simply kill the budget cuts.
"The public is not interested in a grand bargain," said Roger Hickey, co-director of the liberal Campaign for America's Future. "If the president would become a champion of jobs instead of a champion of a deal with Republicans, it would be much more popular and would force the Republicans into a position where they would have to answer him."
Obama instead decried congressional efforts to deal with the budget cuts piecemeal. He singled out legislation that will allow the Federal Aviation Administration to dip into money set aside for airport improvements to avoid furloughs that were causing flight delays. "Essentially what we've done is we've said, In order to avoid delays this summer, we're going to ensure delays for the next two or three decades."
But vetoing the bill, he said, would not result in a broader fix.
"It just means that there would be pain now, which they would try to blame on me, as opposed to pain five years from now," he said.
So Obama planned to sign it.