One of the best known power couples in Washington has been estranged for more than three years, and one of the disgusted partners is taking the other to court to officially sever the relationship. Can this "marriage" be saved?
Probably not, since we're talking about President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), one-time golfing buddies who now practically seethe with contempt whenever they talk about one another.
Boehner burst a gasket at a news conference last week discussing Obama's handling of the growing immigration crisis along the Southwest border saying, "He's been president five and a half years; when is he going to take responsibility for something?" Obama snapped back during a speech in Austin, TX, "The best things you can say for them this year is that so far they haven't shut down the government."
He added, "Of course it's only July, so who knows what they may cook up in the next couple of months."
This, of course, is a far cry from their early interactions when Obama was a relative newcomer to the Oval Office and the wily, veteran lawmaker Boehner was just coming into his own as a major political force in Washington.
Even before the Republicans regained control of the House and elevated Boehner to Speaker in late 2010, the Ohio lawmaker with the year-round tan joked about his comfortable relationship with Obama.
"First thing that happens is, you know, I come in and he'll say, 'Boehner, you're almost as dark as me,'" Boehner quipped during an appearance on Fox News October 6, 2010, according to the Huffington Post. "You know, I listen. We talk about golf. We'll talk about our skin color. We have a nice relationship."
The turning point in their once promising relationship came in 2011, when the two men's secret talks over a "Grand Bargain" of spending and entitlement cuts and tax increases abruptly blew up.
Boehner accused Obama of moving the goal posts with a last minute demand for more tax revenue. Obama insisted that Boehner abandoned the talks after feeling heat from conservatives and realizing he couldn't get his rank-and-file members to go along with him on a tax increase.
Since then, the two men have avoided direct contact except when absolutely necessary. That includes annual State of the Union addresses at the Capitol where the Speaker typically sits glum-faced while the president addresses a joint session of Congress. Or at bipartisan congressional leadership meetings at the White House that Boehner can't afford to miss. Or once in a while in a phone call.
Last Feb. 25, Boehner met privately with the Obama, face-to-face, for about an hour. According to Reuters, "it was the first time the two leaders had met alone in the Oval Office since December 17, 2012." Aides said that the two leaders covered considerable ground, but remained at odds on policies ranging from job creation and Obamacare to immigration reform.
For sure, this political relationship was never an ideal one, and even in the best of times, Boehner declined several invitations to White House state dinners and an invitation to a screening of the movie Lincoln at the White House.
Steven M. Gillon, Scholar in Residence at The History Channel and professor of history at the University of Oklahoma, said on Tuesday that in public at least, Obama and Boehner maintain a professional and "distant" relationship, but with few real signs of an emotional bond. "The political conditions and circumstances have to be just right for the dynamic of their personalities to make much of a difference," Gillon told The Fiscal Times in an email. Unfortunately, he added, the president and Boehner lack "the chemistry" for a real breakthrough in the face of a highly polarized Congress.
Last January, Boehner said that he and Obama "get along fine" during an appearance on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno," while adding that "you know we come at our jobs from a very different perspective."
"There has never been a political marriage between Boehner and Obama, not even an affair," insists University of Virginia political scientist Larry J. Sabato. "Very occasionally they've reached a political bargain, sealed with a handshake, not a kiss."
Relations between Obama and Boehner seemingly hit rock bottom late last month, when Boehner confirmed that he intends to sue Obama in retaliation for the president's repeated attempts to circumvent Congress in order to advance his policies. "In my view, the president has not faithfully executed the laws," Boehner told reporters.
Still, with so much brewing now on the domestic and international front, at some point the president and the Speaker will have to find ways to work together again, for the good of the country.
There are a few signs of a slight thawing in their relationship.
For instance, Boehner hinted broadly that he would go after the president in his law suit with guns blazing, citing Obama for everything from repeatedly revising the timetable for the Affordable Care Act on his own to unilaterally imposing tough new air pollution standards, to negotiating the release of five Taliban prisoners in return for U.S. soldier Bowe Bergdahl without first consulting with Congress.
Yet when Boehner unveiled a draft resolution last week authorizing the litigation, he and his lawyers had narrowed the "indictment" to just one complaint – Obama's decision last summer to unilaterally delay the employer mandate in Obamacare for a year.
That hardly seemed like the guts of an historic, constitutional challenge to the presidency, especially since the delay was favored by many Republicans and business leaders at the time Obama announced it.
Boehner steered clear of Obama's unilateral actions on immigration reform, suggesting that he might be open to a deal with the president to cope with the tens of thousands of unaccompanied children from Central America who have swarmed across the U.S.-Mexico border into this country in recent months.
Finally, while some in both parties have speculated that Boehner's threatened legal action is a precursor to a conservative drive to impeach the president, Boehner has denied this from the start. And when former Alaska governor and unsuccessful GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin called for Obama's impeachment and told Fox News, "You don't bring a lawsuit to a gunfight," the taciturn speaker merely shrugged and replied, "I disagree."
Ray LaHood, the former U.S. Transportation Secretary and long-time Republican House member who knows Obama and Boehner well, doesn't expect to see any major improvement in their relationship -- at least until after the November mid-term election.
LaHood said in an interview this week that Obama and Boehner have a "cordial relationship" and "both understand they have important leadership positions."
"But they're not going to be able to do business before the election, that's very clear," LaHood said. "Everything now is about the mid-terms, everything now is about Republicans winning the Senate; everything is about the November election. Every statement, every move, every speech, it's all about posturing for the mid-terms, and the country suffers as a result of it."
"Nothing gets done, whether it's on veterans, whether it's on transportation – everyone is worried about the election and not dealing with the issues."
—By Eric Pianin, Fiscal Times