Obama and Boehner Duke It Out in Dueling Network Interviews

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP file photo

President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) each gave wide-ranging network interviews on Sunday, offering their perspectives on the war against the Islamic State, the 2014 midterm election campaign, and their economic records.

Boehner, appearing on ABC's This Week, made news by saying he would call the House back into session from its pre-election recess if Obama asked for a vote to authorize his military campaign against ISIS.

For his part, Obama acknowledged on CBS's 60 Minutes that his administration had underestimated the rise of ISIS over the past year, although he seemed to place the blame implicitly on James Clapper, the director of national intelligence.

Here's a breakdown of the president and the speaker's dueling statements on ISIS, the campaign and the economy.

ISIS

The biggest area of disagreement over Obama's strategy to defeat ISIS is on the question of deploying U.S. ground troops. While stopping short of endorsing a large-scale deployment, Boehner echoed other Republican criticism by saying he would not have ruled out ground troops as definitively as Obama has.

If I were the president, I probably wouldn't have talked about what I wouldn't do. And maybe we can get enough of these forces trained to get ‘em on the battlefield. But somebody's boots have to be there."

The speaker also sided firmly with those arguing that if the Iraqi army and Syrian opposition groups on the ground can't repel ISIS with the help of U.S. air power, American combat brigades will have to go in.

We have no choice. These are barbarians. They intend to kill us. And if we don't destroy them first, we're gonna pay the price."

On 60 Minutes, Obama held firm to his insistence that only the Iraqis could fully secure their country and determine their future. Even if the U.S. mounted a larger ground offensive, he told Steve Kroft, Iraq would ultimately need a political resolution to avoid another endless American occupation.

We can't do this for them. We cannot do this for them because it's not just a military problem. It is a political problem. And if we make the mistake of simply sending U.S. troops back in, we can maintain peace for a while. But unless there is a change in how, not just Iraq, but countries like Syria and some of the other countries in the region, think about what political accommodation means. Think about what tolerance means."

As for the worst-case hypothetical, Obama wouldn't go where Boehner did.

I'm not going to speculate on failure at the moment. We're just getting started. Let's see how they do."

The president did concede that the 1,600 U.S. troops that he had deployed in an advisory role to Iraq were "boots on the ground." But he maintained there was an important distinction between soldiers assisting Iraqis and those who were leading offensive combat missions.

There's a difference between them advising and assisting Iraqis who are fighting versus a situation in which we got our Marines and our soldiers out there taking shots and shooting back."

Still, the president was far less confident that his strategy could fully succeed in Syria, where the U.S. is aiding moderate rebels who are caught between ISIS fighters on one side and the Bashar al-Assad regime on the other. "I think Syria is a more challenging situation," Obama said, acknowledging that the U.S. has "few viable allies on the ground there."

2014 Campaign

With just over five weeks before voters head to the polls, Obama and Boehner were predictably rosy in their assessments of their parties' chances for victory in November.

Asked if the Republicans would win the Senate, Boehner was succinct: "I do," he told George Stephanopoulos. He also predicted the GOP would gain seats in the House, an opinion that is widely shared by operatives in both parties.

Obama toed the line on the Senate, giving a verbatim response to Boehner's when asked if Democrats would maintain control. "Yes, I do."

Economy

The president made a more forceful defense of his economic record than he has recently, arguing that it should help Democrats running for re-election.

I can put my record against any leader around the world in terms of digging ourselves out of a terrible, almost unprecedented financial crisis. Ronald Reagan used to ask the question, "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" In this case, are you better off than you were in six? And the answer is, the country is definitely better off than we were when I came into office."

Whether voters will buy it is another question, and judging by the president's lackluster approval rating on the economy, they aren't.

Hopefully, they get a chance to hear the argument, because all I'm doing is presenting the facts."

Operating on the assumption that Republicans will control the Senate in 2015, Boehner said Obama would face a choice between two more years of gridlock and a renewed spirit of cooperation, albeit with the scale tipped more heavily to the GOP side.

The speaker defended the House's efforts to pass economic legislation, and he named a few proposals that could have a better chance of making it into law with full GOP control of Congress.

We have focused like a laser for the last three and a half years on jobs and the economy. Over 40 bills sitting in the U.S. Senate. Let's start with those bills. How about repealing the tax on medical devices? Broad bipartisan majorities in the House and Senate. How about the Keystone pipeline? Broad bipartisan majorities in the House and Senate."

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