Can Obama and McConnell Make Washington Work?

They have little in common and have never been friendly, but Barack Obama and Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell are Washington's new power pair

  • Share
  • Read Later
Illustration by Lou Beach for TIME; McConnell: Tom Williams - Roll Call / Getty Images; Obama: Jewel Samad - AFP / Getty Images

It wasn't unusual that Barack Obama used 11 ceremonial pens to sign his name to the new $857 billion tax-cut bill in December. Or that he gave one as a souvenir to Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell, who was standing nearby in a polka-dot tie, showing, as is his custom, virtually no emotion.

What was unusual, though, was that during the signing ceremony, Obama called McConnell "extraordinary," a far cry from the adjectives — among them, cynical and deceptive — that the President had been using to describe him for much of the year. McConnell, for his part, had been giving the President as good as he got for most of that time too. He traveled the country warning of Obama's plans to "basically Europeanize America" and encouraged his colleagues to unanimously oppose Obama's biggest priorities. As the most powerful Republican in the Senate, McConnell had declared his own top priority to be Obama's defeat in 2012.

And yet here they were, two bitter foes together on a stage, celebrating a shared victory. There was no evidence of personal chemistry, no brief embrace, no signs of warmth at all. But there was also no mistaking the turn of events. The rivals had discovered that they could stare each other down and each find a reason to blink.

Over the next year, no relationship in Washington is likely to shape the course of events more than the fraught and tenuous alliance between Addison Mitchell McConnell Jr., born in 1942 in Tuscumbia, Ala., and Barack Hussein Obama, born in 1961 in Honolulu. While Republican control of the House of Representatives is sure to produce a flurry of bills, the Senate remains the body that will decide which of those become law. And with 45 Republicans in his caucus, McConnell will enjoy a comfortable margin with which to block progress in a chamber where 60 votes are needed to get almost anything done.

For months, Democrats have tried to paint McConnell as the very embodiment of what's wrong with Washington — a knife-eyed obstructionist more interested in scoring political points and milking high-dollar campaign contributors than moving the country forward. But McConnell has always drawn strength from such cartoonish vituperations, which he collects and then displays on his Senate office wall. The reality is that Obama's new governing partner is more nuanced than the caricature of him would suggest.

During his 26 years in the Senate, McConnell has established himself as a consistent conservative and a fierce partisan, a foe of campaign-finance reform, a foreign policy hard-liner and an accomplished deliveryman of appropriated pork. His sensitivity to political concerns has at times piqued some in his own party. Both George W. Bush and top adviser Karl Rove have recalled that McConnell pressured them to pull troops from Iraq in 2006, when the war's popularity was plummeting, though McConnell says their memories are inaccurate.

Those who know him best say policy positions are far less important to understanding McConnell than his intense and enduring appreciation for the ways of the Senate. By all available evidence, the job of Senator is basically the only one McConnell ever coveted. His family moved to Kentucky when he was young. In his fifth-grade class picture, he wore an "I Like Ike" button. At the age of 22 — in 1964, when Obama was 3 — McConnell was already a Senate intern, and he quickly became a student of parliamentary procedure and cloakroom strategy. He worked for two Kentucky Senators before becoming one himself in 1984, earning a reputation as a Machiavellian gamesman who always made sure his handshakes meant something. What he lacked in backslapping charisma, he made up for in determination and patience, a practice he ascribes in part to his struggle in overcoming childhood polio. He won praise "for his feel for the institution" from the likes of Ted Kennedy. "He's a good listener," says Trent Lott, the former majority leader. "He will sit and listen and listen and listen."

McConnell never had much in common with Obama, who arrived in the Senate in 2004 more interested in the possibility of a presidential campaign than in the institution's elaborate pecking order. One of the first times they really talked was in 2008, shortly after the election, when the President-elect called while McConnell was grocery shopping at a Louisville Kroger. A rapport never really developed. As recently as December, Obama goofed by calling the Senate leader "Mike" in a speech and then failed to notice or correct the mistake.

But the two men now find their interests aligning just when the stakes are highest. How long that will last is unclear: Obama is determined to win back independent voters over the coming year by demonstrating that he can channel the partisan furies in Washington into productive, bipartisan policies. And McConnell, a consummate legislator, does not view compromise as a synonym for surrender, especially if Obama is willing to make deals with the Republican side of the aisle. "The work on the tax package was a good example of an area where we can do some business," McConnell told TIME over the holiday break. "And in the future, if the President is willing to move in a different direction, taking positions that I and my members hold anyway, why would we reject that?"

To bridge the gap, Obama has relied on Vice President Joe Biden to be the interpreter for both men. Biden knows Obama's needs and limits but shares with McConnell more than two decades in the Senate and the ways and means of backroom dealmaking. McConnell aides say they were surprised and pleased when Biden called to propose private negotiations over a tax-cut deal. The details were worked out over a week of discussions and sealed with private verbal assurances. "What they say is what they mean," explains one senior White House official familiar with these conversations.

McConnell has already signaled his willingness to work with the White House on energy policy, particularly nuclear and coal subsidies, as well as long-range entitlement reform. White House aides are pushing for bipartisan cooperation on further education reforms.

But if there is room for such cooperation, no one expects the two leaders to become friends. McConnell will have to cope with a freshman class of incoming Tea Party Senators who are looking to shake up the Senate's old ways. One of those, Kentucky's Rand Paul, overcame opposition from McConnell himself to get the state GOP nomination in 2010. Meanwhile, the conservative wing of McConnell's caucus, led by his deputy, Arizona Senator Jon Kyl, has already made clear that there are some compromises they will not abide. After the midterm elections, McConnell reversed course and supported a two-year moratorium on earmarks and even lined up votes against a spending package that included millions in special projects for Kentucky. McConnell has already pledged to try to repeal key parts of Obama's health care plan and to institute broad-based spending cuts that are sure to enrage the Democratic base. His pledge to make Obama a one-termer has not been rescinded.

McConnell has also made clear that his appearance at Obama's side will not soften his sometimes acid tongue. Just days after the tax-cut signing ceremony, McConnell joked with a Capitol Hill reporter about Democrats who have complained about his hard-charging tactics in the Senate. "If they think it's bad now," he said, with a chuckle, "wait till next year."

With reporting by Jay Newton-Small