White House Makes Boehner A Household Name

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If you haven't heard of House Minority Leader John Boehner before, President Barack Obama is trying to change that. The Ohio Republican could take over the speakership if the GOP succeeds in winning a majority of House seats this November. Between now and then, Democrats will paint a scary picture of Boehner.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

For nearly 20 years, Republican John Boehner of Ohio's 8th District has been a member of Congress. For much of that time, he's been part of the GOP leadership, currently serving as the minority leader. None of that necessarily makes him a household name, but Boehner's profile has gotten a significant boost in recent weeks from none other than President Obama.

NPR's Don Gonyea has the story.

DON GONYEA: As the top-ranking Republican in the House of Representatives, John Boehner is a fixture on cable, on C-SPAN, on the Sunday morning shows. He plays the talking head on the news. This is from "Good Morning America" on ABC.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Good Morning America")

Representatives JOHN BOEHNER (Republican, Ohio; House Minority Leader): We can't deal with the deficit until we're willing to get our arms around spending and have a strong economy. And you can't have a strong economy if you're raising taxes on the very people you expect to invest in our economy and to begin hiring people again.

GONYEA: Or he can crank it up, as he did on the House floor when the health care bill neared final passage.

Rep. BOEHNER: Have you read the bill?

Unidentified Group: Yeah.

Rep. BOEHNER: Have you read the reconciliation bill?

Unidentified Group: Yeah.

Rep. BOEHNER: Have you read the manager's amendment?

Unidentified Group: Yeah.

Rep. BOEHNER: Hell no, you haven't.

GONYEA: In recent weeks, Boehner has been attacking the Obama administration's economic policies and the president's push to allow Bush era tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans to expire. A few weeks ago, he delivered a major economic speech in Cleveland.

Rep. BOEHNER: Unless Congress acts, virtually every American will see their taxes go up on January the 1st. President Obama has stated he wants to stop some tax hikes and not others.

GONYEA: This speech come with GOP hopes running high this year and with Boehner already eyeing his hoped-for next job: speaker of the House.

Enter President Obama, who yesterday headed to the Cleveland area himself. The location of the president's speech was chosen in direct response to Boehner. The president spoke of the deeply troubled economy he inherited when he took office. But then he got to Boehner.

President BARACK OBAMA: There were no new policies from Mr. Boehner. There were no new when these same Republicans, including Mr. Boehner, were in charge Mr. Boehner dismissed these jobs Mr. Boehner and the Republicans in Congress said no to these projects.

GONYEA: In all, the president mentioned Boehner by name eight times in the speech. It was a lengthy critique. In focusing so much on Boehner, he was putting a face on the opposition, hoping to motivate his own supporters. But in the meantime, Boehner's profile gets a lift.

Former GOP strategist Jack Pitney who teaches at Claremont McKenna College, says as Americans learn more about him, they'll find someone whose style is very different from Newt Gingrich, a GOP speaker who famously clashed with a Democratic president.

Dr. JACK PITNEY (Claremont McKenna College): Newt Gingrich specialized in the outside game, in reaching beyond the four walls of Congress, trying to shift general public opinion.

John Boehner specializes more in the inside game, working with fellow Republicans and focusing on procedure in the House of Representatives.

GONYEA: And though Boehner's early days in congress were as part of Gingrich's cadre of conservative insurgents, Boehner today is very much a creature of the establishment.

Ross Baker of Rutgers University says that could put him at odds with a growing faction within the GOP.

Professor ROSS BAKER (Political Science, Rutgers University): I can't imagine anybody who is more distant from the Tea Party ideal than John Boehner.

GONYEA: Baker adds that Boehner's long career does show an ability to work with Democrats, even though there's been very little of that in the current Congress.

Asked to describe Boehner, Baker sums up the GOP leader this way:

Prof. BAKER: Boehner is an old-fashioned, small-government, country-club, cocktail-drinking, cigarette-smoking Republican.

GONYEA: Now, Baker left out one defining feature of Boehner's physical appearance, his deep suntan, which never seems to fade no matter the season. President Obama broached the topic at a Washington gala dinner in 2009, singling Boehner out in a black-tie crowd.

Pres. OBAMA: After all, we have a lot in common. He is a person of color.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Pres. OBAMA: Although not a color that appears in the natural world.

GONYEA: Boehner has heard all the jokes. He generally laughs while insisting the tan comes from hours spent on the golf course or mowing his lawn. If he becomes speaker, he'll be able to add increased time in the spotlight as another reason.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington.

BLOCK: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

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