G.O.P. vs. Obama: Disrespect or Just Politics?

John Boehner

When she was House speaker, Representative Nancy Pelosi, Democrat of California verbally tormented President George W. Bush. (Ms. Pelosi’s description of Mr. Bush as “an incompetent leader” comes to mind.) Dick Armey, a Republican former lawmaker from Texas and now a Tea Party leader, referred derisively to Bill Clinton as “your president” when speaking to Democrats. President Ronald Reagan sparred often with Democrats on the Hill.

While most of those fights stemmed from deep policy divides, the relentless acrimony between President Obama and Congressional Republicans also seems strikingly personal, almost petty.

And Democrats worry that Mr. Obama, hampered, too, by his own inexperience and dispassionate style, is increasingly weakened by what they fume is a party that fundamentally disrespects him and his office. They fear the outcome as Congress and the White House face off on a host of new issues: the national deficit and finishing this year’s budget, reauthorization of a controversial federal aviation bill and the fate of the cash-strapped Postal Service. The relationship was foreshadowed in 2009 when Representative Joe Wilson, a South Carolina Republican, yelled “You lie!” during a presidential address to Congress — a remarkably rare outburst on the House floor. Since then, Congressional Republicans have turned down requests for White House meetings, refused to return the president’s call and walked out of budget talks.

Then, on Wednesday, Speaker John A. Boehner became what historians say was the first ever to tell a sitting president that no, he could not deliver an address to a joint session of Congress on the date of his choice. On Thursday, Representative Joe Walsh said in a Twitter message that he would fly home to Illinois rather than serve as “a prop of another one of the president’s speeches.”

It seems they simply do not like the man.

Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the minority leader, said this year that his first goal was to see Mr. Obama defeated.

“The closest we have come to this was Tom DeLay’s hatred for Clinton when he demanded impeachment of him,” said Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative research group. “But that was one guy or a handful. Now it is much more widespread, and the toxicity is, and culture is different now.”

Mr. Ornstein pointed to the fight over the payroll tax cut sought by the Obama administration — one that many Congressional Republicans supported in 2009 but oppose now — as an example of Republicans’ opposing Mr. Obama even when they had agreed with him on a policy. Mr. Obama has had his own contributing role. Often when he has met with Republicans he has taken a scolding tone that irks them. Even some of his fellow Democrats viewed his attempt to schedule an address on job creation before a joint session of Congress next Wednesday — the same night as a major Republican presidential debate — as clumsy if not downright rude. It then became embarrassing when Mr. Obama capitulated and changed the date to Thursday at 7 p.m., as Mr. Boehner wanted.

But the dynamic, which Democrats largely blame Republicans for, has irked many of them, especially on the Hill. “I think it is unprecedented of a leader in the Senate of either party to say the most important goal he has is to make the current president a one-term,” said Senator Barbara Boxer, Democrat of California. “That is about respect, that is about priorities and it is just wrong.”

Julian E. Zelizer, a political scientist at Princeton, said that when it comes to Mr. Obama, Republicans “just keep gaining confidence to force his hand.”

“While there might be a few people whose words have become nastier than usual, I think this is really the new normal in Washington with a president who is always on the ropes,” Professor Zelizer said. “I am not convinced that is about lack of respect so much as the feeling that this is a weak president. If the president seemed more powerful they would have returned the call.”

Indeed, Mr. Boehner’s spokesman, Kevin Smith, said there was nothing personal about the disputes. “While they may have different visions for the role of government in our country,” Mr. Smith said, “the speaker has great respect for the president, likes him personally and looks forward to hearing his speech next week.”

The White House press secretary, Jay Carney, said Thursday that the administration spent “zero” time worrying about whether Republicans in Congress are showing the president the respect that the office deserves. “You guys care much more about this than we do,” he scolded reporters who asked about the relationship between Mr. Obama and Congressional Republicans.

The president himself eschews making things personal, so his aides follow suit — at least when it comes to any hint that his critics’ attacks are for reasons other than his policies.

There is the persistent and deeply uncomfortable question of race. Many African-Americans, including black lawmakers, and even white Democrats, have complained that some of the disrespect for Mr. Obama stems from distaste among some whites at the idea of seeing a black man in the Oval Office.

“I think people want to not deal with that issue,” said Representative Raúl M. Grijalva, Democrat of Arizona. “But I think, like it or not, some of the disrespect — and I stress some, not all — stems from the discomfort of having a person of color be president of the United States.”

Many Republican members “don’t respect him,” Mr. Grijalva said, adding, “Not even in our worst days as Democrats did we demean and attempt to cripple the office of president.”

Mr. Grijalva and Representative Keith Ellison of Minnesota have sent a letter pressing Mr. Obama to be “bold” in his address to Congress on Thursday on job creation and the economy.

It has been frustrating, especially to the more liberal corners of the Democratic Party, including Mr. Grijalva, that Mr. Obama has not taken on his opponents more forcefully. “I support him,” he said of Mr. Obama, “but he has got to take the fight to them.”

But White House officials, echoing their boss’s aversion to suggestions of racism, never play that card, not even in private conversations with reporters.

One administration official said that Mr. Obama “made it clear” when he came into office “that there wouldn’t be people crying wolf on race every day.”

Helene Cooper contributed reporting.

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