“When I first came into office, the head of the Senate Republicans said, ‘my number one priority is making sure president Obama’s a one-term president.’ Now, after the election, either he will have succeeded in that goal or he will have failed at that goal.”
— President Obama, interview on CBS’ “60 Minutes,” recorded on Sept. 12, 2012, and aired on Sept. 23
“It was no surprise, because the senator from Kentucky, who just spoke, announced at the beginning, four years ago, exactly what his strategy would be. He said, his number-one goal was to make sure that Barack Obama was a one-term president.”
— Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), on the Senate floor, Sept. 21, 2012
“Ed Rendell, who has criticized the president (objecting, for example, to the Obama campaign's attack on private equity), also argues that Obama has been constrained by an unprecedented obduracy in his Republican opposition. ‘I can't ever recall a newly elected president being faced with the leader of the other party's caucus saying “Our No. 1 priority is to make this president a one-term president,”’ says Rendell, citing the remark made by Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, that exemplified the fierce partisanship that has attended Obama's tenure. ‘That McConnell would say that in the first nine months of Barack Obama's tenure is absolutely stunning, disgraceful, disgusting — you name the term.’”
Clearly, a theme has emerged among Democrats: Republicans were so determined to thwart President Obama’s agenda that the Senate Minority leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, even announced from day one that he was determined to make Obama a one-term president.
The timing of McConnell’s statement obviously makes a difference. In the Democratic narrative, the top GOP senator signaled early on he had no intention of cooperating with the new president.
Is that really the case?
McConnell made his remarks in an interview that appeared in the National Journal on Oct. 23, 2010 — nearly two years after Obama was elected president. The interview took place on the eve the of the midterm elections. The interview is relatively short, so we will print it in its entirety, with key portions highlighted.
NJ: You’ve been studying the history of presidents who lost part or all of Congress in their first term. Why?
McConnell: In the last 100 years, three presidents suffered big defeats in Congress in their first term and then won reelection: Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, and the most recent example, Bill Clinton. I read a lot of history anyway, but I am trying to apply those lessons to current situations in hopes of not making the same mistakes.
NJ: What have you learned?
McConnell: After 1994, the public had the impression we Republicans overpromised and underdelivered. We suffered from some degree of hubris and acted as if the president was irrelevant and we would roll over him. By the summer of 1995, he was already on the way to being reelected, and we were hanging on for our lives.
NJ: What does this mean now?
McConnell: We need to be honest with the public. This election is about them, not us. And we need to treat this election as the first step in retaking the government. We need to say to everyone on Election Day, “Those of you who helped make this a good day, you need to go out and help us finish the job.”
NJ: What’s the job?
McConnell: The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.
NJ: Does that mean endless, or at least frequent, confrontation with the president?
McConnell: If President Obama does a Clintonian backflip, if he’s willing to meet us halfway on some of the biggest issues, it’s not inappropriate for us to do business with him.
NJ: What are the big issues?
McConnell: It is possible the president’s advisers will tell him he has to do something to get right with the public on his levels of spending and [on] lowering the national debt. If he were to heed that advice, he would, I imagine, find more support among our conference than he would among some in the Senate in his own party. I don’t want the president to fail; I want him to change. So, we’ll see. The next move is going to be up to him.
NJ: What will you seek from the president on the tax issue?
McConnell: At the very least, I believe we should extend all of the Bush tax cuts. And I prefer to describe this as keeping current tax policy. It’s been on the books for 10 years. Now, how long that [extension] is, is something we can discuss. It was clear his position was not [favored] among all Senate Democrats. They had their own divisions. I don’t think those divisions are going to be any less in November and December.
When seen in full context, McConnell’s quote is not really as shocking as the snippet that is frequently repeated by Democrats.
Generally, Democrats suggest that McConnell believed that no problem is bigger than getting rid of Obama, but it is clear that he is speaking in a political context — that the goals of Republicans could not be achieved unless Obama is defeated in his race for reelection. A case in point: the health care law could not be overturned unless Obama is defeated.
Moreover, McConnell goes on to say that he does “not want the president to fail” and cooperation was possible “if he’s willing to meet us halfway on some of the biggest issues.” McConnell in fact cited an extension of the Bush tax cuts — and Obama did strike such a deal shortly after the midterm elections.
Here’s how McConnell explained his remarks in a speech after the election, when Republicans had taken over the House of Representatives and made huge gains in the Senate:
“Let’s start with the big picture. Over the past week, some have said it was indelicate of me to suggest that our top political priority over the next two years should be to deny President Obama a second term in office. But the fact is, if our primary legislative goals are to repeal and replace the health spending bill; to end the bailouts; cut spending; and shrink the size and scope of government, the only way to do all these things it is to put someone in the White House who won’t veto any of these things. We can hope the President will start listening to the electorate after Tuesday’s election. But we can’t plan on it. And it would be foolish to expect that Republicans will be able to completely reverse the damage Democrats have done as long as a Democrat holds the veto pen.”
The Pinocchio Test
There is no doubt that McConnell said he wanted to make Obama a one-term president. But he did not say it at the start of Obama’s term; instead, he made his comments at the midpoint, after Obama had enacted many of his preferred policies.
Perhaps, in Obama’s memory, McConnell was always uncooperative. But that does not give him and other Democrats the license to rearrange the chronology to suit the party’s talking points.