President Obama likes to invoke his predecessors in the Oval Office, as all Presidents do, but in one sense he is unlike the others: Presidents traditionally try to reach a rough domestic consensus if they are faced with going to war abroad. Mr. Obama wants to smooth everything over abroad so he can get back to his favorite pursuit of declaring war at home.
At least that’s how it’s gone the last week, as Mr. Obama all but wrapped up that ghastly business in Syria and turned his attention to the real enemy—Republicans. Backed by the good offices of Vladimir Putin and the assurances of Bashar Assad, United Nations inspectors will now remove Syria’s chemical weapons from the battlefield. Congress doesn’t even have to vote on it, and the American people can forget the recent unpleasantness. Peace in our time.
Which means it’s now safe for Mr. Obama to begin the war he really wants to fight. The President spoke Monday afternoon at the White House in remarks pegged to the fifth anniversary of the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the financial panic of 2008. But the financial crisis was merely an excuse for Mr. Obama’s real purpose, which was to demand unconditional surrender from his domestic opposition.
Mr. Obama assailed Republicans for an “ideological agenda” that he called “the height of irresponsibility.” Among other crimes against humanity, he said the GOP refuses to abandon the budget restraint of the sequester spending cuts or to greet the Affordable Care Act with flowers and sweets.
“Are they really willing to hurt people just to score political points? I hope not,” Mr. Obama said, transparently suggesting that they do want to hurt people. At least he didn’t accuse them of using chemical weapons, but when it comes to stopping atrocities like opposition to his domestic agenda, let him be clear: He doesn’t do pinpricks.
Mr. Obama did at least once or twice suggest he’s willing to compromise, sort of. He said he’ll call off his domestic strikes if Republicans agree to a framework for political and fiscal disarmament, including another tax increase on top of the one extracted as recently as January.
“As far as the budget goes,” the President warned, “it’s time for responsible Republicans who share these goals—and there are a number of folks out there who I think are decent folks, I’ve got some disagreements with them on some issues, but I think genuinely want to see the economy grow and want what’s best for the American people—it’s time for those Republicans to step up and they’ve got to decide what they want to prioritize.”
With malice for all, and charity toward none. Perhaps to honor Lincoln’s memory, Mr. Obama will suspend habeas corpus for those indecent folks who genuinely want what’s worst for Americans.
There really has never been anything like this in the White House, at least not in the modern era. Ronald Reagan compromised on budget issues with a Democratic majority rather than trigger a debt limit crisis. George H.W. Bush signed onto a tax increase in 1990 in part so he could get Democratic support for the brewing Gulf War. Bill Clinton struck a budget deal and worked with Republicans on foreign policy. And facing a new Democratic majority in 2007, George W. Bush signed onto a fiscal “stimulus” and rotten energy bill well before the financial crisis compelled bipartisan votes.
Mr. Obama declares that he won’t even deign to negotiate over an extension of the debt limit, which expires within a month or two. And he carpet-bombs Republicans only two weeks after House Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor took a political risk and declared they’d vote for the President’s Syrian war resolution against the views of most of their own Members.
The evidence suggests that Mr. Obama wants a showdown with Congress that ends with a government shutdown or a dance with default. He can then mount an offensive against Republicans that will rally his base, which soured on his Syrian plans and vetoed Larry Summers for the Federal Reserve. With his domestic agenda dead on Capitol Hill, Mr. Obama may also figure that stigmatizing Republicans over a shutdown-default crisis is the only way that Democrats can retake the House in 2014.
The question is how well all of this will play with a war-weary public. Mr. Obama is no longer the fresh young idealist President, and Americans are beginning to figure out his methods. Like Assad and Mr. Putin, they may conclude that he’s no longer a President whose words they can take seriously.
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This article was written by the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal.