Mitch McConnell calls Obama ‘very smart’ but ‘a little preachy’

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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell discusses President Obama’s final State of the Union speech. (Photo: J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

One day after President Obama’s final State of the Union speech, Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told Yahoo News on Wednesday that he disputes Obama’s diagnosis of American politics as toxic and tribal and sharply disagrees with the president’s proposed cures. Reflecting on nearly eight years of negotiations with Obama, McConnell also described him as “a very smart guy” but “a little preachy,” and said their “bourbon summit” never got past the planning stage.

McConnell, in an exclusive interview with Yahoo News on Sirius XM, predicted action in Congress this year to battle the alarming national heroin epidemic and foresaw progress on overhauling America’s criminal justice system — two priorities Obama cited in what may be his last speech to a joint session of Congress. The Kentucky Republican also criticized the president’s record on the economy and put in a plug for his state’s signature liquor, bourbon.

Obama urged Americans late Tuesday to “fix our politics,” arguing that the system has become hyper-partisan and fails to solve pressing problems. The president urged new efforts to curb the influence of campaign cash, the removal of barriers to voting, and an end to gerrymandering of political districts.

“I certainly don’t agree with any of his solutions, which would give the government the ability to micromanage how people participate in trying to elect their government,” McConnell said.

“We’ve always had robust political debates in our history. And frequently, at various intervals, we have thought it was worse than it ever was,” he added. “So I think America has many problems, but lack of collegiality and too much debate is not among them.”

Asked to describe Obama’s best quality as a politician, McConnell said the president is “a very smart guy.” Pressed to say what the president’s most annoying trait is, the senator laughed and replied, “He’s a little preachy, you know. He likes to tell you what you think in your presence. And it’s a little bit annoying.

“But, look, he’s a capable, far-left president who wanted to transform the country. And he has in many ways — in my view, in the wrong direction,” McConnell said.

McConnell acknowledged that Americans are “probably” better off than they were when Obama took office in January 2009 — an unusual concession by a leading Republican at a time when the party’s presidential candidates sound like they aren’t sure the country will still be standing by Election Day. But he quickly added the caveat that “that’s not the way to measure it” because the Democrat took office in the middle of a devastating global financial meltdown.

President Obama on Tuesday boasted of overseeing “the longest streak of private sector job creation in history,” the halving of the unemployment rate, and the strong performance of the automotive sector he rescued over conservative objections after the crisis. And the White House has frequently blamed the meltdown on Republican policies and said the president deserves the credit for turning the economy around, starting with a massive economic stimulus package he pushed to passage over GOP objections in 2009.

But McConnell charged that the Obama recovery has been “tepid,” with a slow growth rate as well as poor job prospects for young people carrying heavy college debt. And he predicted that it will be “a really tough sell” for the Democratic presidential nominee “to make the argument that we want four more years just like the last eight.”

McConnell sounded optimistic notes on the prospects for congressional action to battle the heroin epidemic and overhaul America’s criminal justice system.

“Certainly the heroin epidemic we will tackle, and tackle soon, in the Senate. It’s a scourge all across the country,” he said. “People running for president up in New Hampshire tell me — oddly enough, nobody would predict this — it’s the No. 1 issue.”

In addition, “there may well be action on the criminal justice front” despite “robust” misgivings on the Republican side, McConnell said. He declined to spell out those concerns.

In the aftermath of the Republican romp in the 2014 elections, Obama and McConnell had entertained talk of a “bourbon summit” to find ways to cooperate.

“We never actually had the bourbon summit,” McConnell said before seizing the opportunity to plug what he called a “boom” in sales of his home state’s signature liquor both in the United States and overseas.

“There are more bourbon barrels in Kentucky than there are people,” he said.

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