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Obama's Rocky Relationship With Speaker Ryan Threatens Final Year


Tonight is the last State of the Union address for President Obama. It's the first State of the Union for Paul Ryan as speaker of the House. The Wisconsin Republican will preside over the chamber during the speech. It will be close to impossible for either Obama or Ryan to get any bills passed this year without the other's cooperation. NPR congressional reporter Susan Davis is here to talk about whether these two guys can get along. Hey, Sue.


SHAPIRO: OK. Paul Ryan's been in Congress for quite a while now. Describe his relationship with President Obama up until now.

DAVIS: OK. So Paul Ryan is new to the speaker's office, but he's actually had a lot of interactions with the president over the years, mainly because he's been the idea guy for House Republicans. And as chairman of the Budget Committee for six years, he's the guy that wrote the annual blueprint that's basically become the platform for the Republican Party when it comes to fiscal issues.

SHAPIRO: Which Obama has traditionally attacked.

DAVIS: Exactly, mainly because the key thing that's in this budget is Ryan's plan that he came up with to privatize Medicare for future retirees. Now, that idea has become campaign fodder for Obama and Democrats for years. But at the same time, those attacks sort of elevated Ryan to a guy that is seen as a top policymaker in the Republican Party.

They've also had a couple of awkward interactions over the years. There was a speech in 2011 at Georgetown University in which the president personally called out Ryan for his fiscal policies when he was - Paul Ryan was sitting right there in the front row. The president said he regretted doing that. He didn't know he was going to be there, and he felt bad because he thought it looked like he brought him there to embarrass him.

And of course, Paul Ryan faced off against the president on the national stage when Mitt Romney tapped him to be his running mate in 2012. But we know how that ended. Over the years, the president has indicated he has a respect for Paul Ryan. He thinks he's smart. He thinks he works hard, and they have a personally cordial relationship. But there's just not a lot of common ground between the two men when it comes to policymaking.

SHAPIRO: So it seems like these guys both benefit politically from demonizing each other, but they can also both benefit from getting something done. You you see space for them to accomplish something together in the final year of the Obama presidency?

DAVIS: Sure, but it's important to remember that Congress is only in session for 80-some days before election day.

SHAPIRO: Wow - until November, just 80-some days.

DAVIS: Yeah, particularly because the political conventions are this summer, so Congress is in session even less this year. So realistically, there just isn't a ton of time to get much done. If you recall, last year, they reached a budget deal, so we're not going to have another shutdown fight, hopefully, this year. And there's a couple of areas that both sides have said they think they can get something done.

One is criminal sentencing reform. There's a bipartisan group of lawmakers who support that, as does president Obama. The president has also enjoyed strong allies, including Paul Ryan, among Republicans on Capitol Hill - been passing a trade deal with Asia-Pacific nations. That's a top priority for him before he leaves office.

But of course, it's an election year, so we can also expect some politically motivated votes. Ryan said he wants the House Republicans to come up with and vote on an alternative to President Obama's health care law. This is something we have not seen before. Now, the president obviously isn't going to sign that into law, but Ryan says he thinks it's important to show the public how Republicans would overhaul the health care system.

SHAPIRO: How do you see Obama and Ryan getting along in the next year? I mean, are they going to play golf the way Obama did with Ryan's predecessor, John Boehner?

DAVIS: (Laughter) Well, Paul Ryan is a hunter, and he's not a golfer. So they're going to have to find a new way to socialize. They're both fitness buffs. They both work out every morning.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. I once worked out with Paul Ryan on a campaign trail in 2012. I can attest to that.

DAVIS: OK. Well, they both - and both the president and Paul Ryan say they like to work out every morning, so maybe they can bond in the gym. You know, but they also have stylistic similarities. They both are known for their sort of cool, easy-going demeanors. They're not known for being easily ruffled or prone to anger.

Obama also is a lot more in common with Ryan than any other leader when it comes to sort of their generational similarities. He's only nine years older than the speaker. They have sort of similar pop-culture sensibilities. They know what's going on with the kids in the world because they're both raising young kids.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

DAVIS: That's something that they talk about when they're together. And Ryan has said that in particular, they talk about the challenges facing fathers of raising teenage daughters.

SHAPIRO: That's Susan Davis, NPR's congressional reporter. Thanks, Sue.

DAVIS: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Susan Davis is a congressional correspondent for NPR and a co-host of the NPR Politics Podcast. She has covered Congress, elections, and national politics since 2002 for publications including USA TODAY, The Wall Street Journal, National Journal and Roll Call. She appears regularly on television and radio outlets to discuss congressional and national politics, and she is a contributor on PBS's Washington Week with Robert Costa. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Philadelphia native.