On the first weekend of the shutdown, President Obama was nowhere to be seen. There were no calls or meetings at the White House, as surrogates flooded Twitter and television in his stead. Not even the still open Andrews Golf Course enticed him.
For seven days the federal government has been closed, and for seven days Obama has refused to negotiate with House Republicans. He’s cloistered himself in the White House as the GOP takes a lashing in the press and across the country, emerging only to fan the flames.
“I’m happy to have negotiations but we can’t do it with a gun held to the head of the American people,” Obama told reporters on Friday, as he took a casual stroll for sandwiches with the Vice President. In the President’s view, Republicans, of course, are the ones holding the guns.
The no-negotiating position is a dramatic reversal from the White House’s tone during the tortured debt-limit fight in 2011 that never truly ended. For weeks, Administration officials and congressional leaders conducted negotiations on multiple tracks — big deals, small deals, grand bargains. They fell apart, and Obama gave away the store to Republicans in an attempt to protect a fragile recovery 16 months before his re-election, including the 5% cut to the discretionary-spending budget known as “sequestration.” Democrats howled, but Obama kept off another debt-limit fight until after Election Day.
Administration officials say Obama came away from that experience burned, and emboldened by turning the tables on Speaker of the House John Boehner during last year’s postelection fiscal-cliff negotiations. He no longer believes Boehner can credibly cut a deal, despite private assurances to his members that he won’t let the nation risk being unable to meet its financial obligations.
In the short term, Obama is convinced, and polls confirm, that Republicans will bear the brunt of the blame for closing the government. Republicans, meanwhile, have been using Obama’s hard-line position to try to even the score, forcing Democrats to vote against — and the White House to threaten to veto — continuing resolutions to selectively reopen popular government programs. Boehner has lambasted the President for not negotiating. (In some ways, this Obama-won’t-negotiate talking point has been easier to deliver than the White House’s latest argument that Boehner could simply reopen the government today if he allowed a vote on a clean funding measure.) Republicans are highlighting the national-park closings and the other popular programs that are on hold. But those efforts are a drop in the bucket compared with the overwhelming blame they are taking on in the process.
But Republicans believe ultimately, the potential downside for Obama is far worse than for Republicans, albeit in the long run. Default, or even the specter of default, will eventually send the financial markets into another tailspin, almost certainly slowing the economy yet again under Obama’s watch.
Democrats privately acknowledge that at some point Obama will be forced to the table once Republicans’ backs are against the deadline, but that the no-negotiations line is itself a negotiating position.
There is some precedent to the White House’s strategy. In July, in which several of Obama’s nominees were held up by Republican filibusters, Senate majority leader Harry Reid repeatedly threatened to change Senate rules through the so-called “nuclear option” unless Republicans allowed all of Obama’s nominees a vote. After weeks of tough talk and with the GOP squirming to avoid a rules change, Reid cut a favorable deal that gave him less than everything he wanted.