President Obama – judging by his press conference this afternn – seems to hold Russian autocrat Vladimir Putin in higher esteem than many of the Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
On Friday, before departing for a Martha Vineyard’s vacation, Obama gave a 53-minute press conference with rather gentle words for Putin, who recently offered temporary asylum to NSA leaker Edward Snowden.
Obama instead saved his harshest remarks for a group of GOP lawmakers who are prepared to shut down the entire U.S. government – by blocking the passage of a 2014 budget – unless the president agrees to defund Obamacare. At least 13 senators are promoting the financial blockade, in addition to a slew of Republicans in the House.
To the president, their demand is absurd. “The idea that you shut down the government unless you prevent 30 million people from getting health care is a bad idea,” he bluntly declared.
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Obama claimed that the GOP had an “ideological fixation” on the 2010 Affordable Care Act, which starting next year will assess a tax penalty against uninsured Americans who forgo coverage through a series of new government exchanges. The president said opposition to Obamacare was one belief “unifying” Republicans.
After the president claimed the GOP had no agenda for lowering the cost of health care, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) defiantly tweeted out a list of nine ideas – including limits that could be placed on medical liability lawsuits.
By comparison, Putin – whose reign in Russia bears the markings of a dictatorship – was treated kindly. Relations with Russia have deteriorated over Snowden, missile defense, the Syrian civil war, and Putin’s alleged theft of a Super Bowl ring from Robert Kraft, the owner of the New England Patriots.
The oppressive treatment of homosexuals in Russia had led to calls that the United States boycott the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, while the administration recently canceled a pre-G20 summit with Putin.
“I don’t have a bad personal relationship with Putin,” Obama said Friday, describing their conversations as “candid” and “blunt” despite the negative body language and the understanding that “there are going to be differences and we’re not going to be able to disguise them.”
His harshest words were that Russian discrimination against the gay community would probably hurt the quality of their Olympic teams.
Republicans were not cast in as generous a light, as Obama also tore into them for blocking a bipartisan immigration reform that passed in the Senate and would enable a pathway to citizenship for as many as 11 million illegal immigrants.
The kindest words he could muster – although he has extended the olive branch throughout his presidency to the other side of the aisle – hinged on more conservative Republicans backing away from the government shutdown.
“I have confidence that common sense in the end will prevail,” Obama said.
In short, it was a play to public sensibilities. The president needs to assure voters that relations with a nuclear-armed Russia can be stabilized, while trying to use public sentiment to pressure the GOP into a strategic retreat.
After all, Obama admitted that public relations were a decisive element in how the administration was handling its response to Snowden disclosing that the National Security Agency stores the electronic communications of Americans.
The president assured the country that targeted monitoring could only occur with court approval. He announced the formation of a commission to examine electronic surveillance issues, plans to tweak the structure of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court so that opposing viewpoints are represented, and pledged to provide greater transparency.
“The programs are operating in a way that prevents abuse, that continues to be true without reforms,” Obama said. “The question is: How do I make the American people more comfortable?”
Indeed. The next few weeks will reveal whether he succeeds in making the country more comfortable with Putin and less comfortable with the most conservative Republicans in Congress.