Obama Pivots To Reclaim Reputation as Negotiator-In-Chief

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Charles Dharapak / AP

President Barack Obama speaks in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington on Oct. 17, 2013

President Barack Obama has a new message for congressional Republicans today: let’s talk.

“I will look for willing partners wherever I can to get important work done,” the president said Thursday morning, announcing he intends to work with Congress to pass an annual budget, comprehensive immigration reform, and a farm bill.

Fresh off his victory over House Republicans in twin fiscal crises, the president is preparing an about-face after weeks of swearing off any negotiations with the GOP to fund the government and raise the debt limit. Not only that, but he is also setting the stage to criticize the opposition if they decline to put everything on the table.

It’s the completion of a months-long White House strategy on the debt limit that whittled away at the president’s preferred public image as moderate dealmaker. After getting rolled in 2011, Obama swore to his staff that he wouldn’t again get held hostage over the debt limit. Earlier this year, Obama laid down that no-negotiation promise in a statement on the New Year’s fiscal cliff deal, and he stood by it. There were no serious talks. No secret back-channel negotiations. No Joe Biden. Aides on both sides of Pennsylvania Ave. described meetings with congressional leaders last week as more to please the media than a reflection of any attempt to make progress.

Aides admit they were wary of the impact of Obama’s hardline position during the shutdown, especially as Republicans passed piecemeal bills to reopen slices of the federal government last week. Business leaders called on the president to throw Republicans a lifeline. Senate Democrats instinctively rushed to cut rogue deals. They fretted the rebuke from the “David Gergen caucus” of beltway pundits. But more than anything, it posed a danger to the Obama brand. He ran for office in 2008 insisting that he was open to negotiating with Iran without preconditions. He had pledged to change the way business is done in Washington and bridge the partisan divides.

As the afterglow of an end to the shutdown quickly faded, Obama turned his focus to the next crisis in a morning address at the White House, taking a swing at the tea party and extending an olive branch to moderate Republicans.

“You don’t like a particular policy or a particular president, then argue for your position,” Obama said in a shot at the GOP. “Go out there and win an election.”

“Sometimes we’ll be just too far apart to forge an agreement,” Obama added. “But that should not hold back our efforts in areas where we do agree. We shouldn’t fail to act on areas that we do agree or could agree just because we don’t think it’s good politics, just because the extremes in our party don’t like the word ‘compromise.'”

It was an echo of his message from the night before. “I am willing to work with anybody, I am eager to work with anybody—Democrat or Republican, House or Senate members—on any idea that will grow our economy, create new jobs, strengthen the middle class, and get our fiscal house in order for the long term,” Obama said Wednesday evening before the House voted to reopen the government. On Thursday he laid out his remaining priorities, though nobody at the White House is holding their breath that Republicans will change course.

According to White House officials, the president will adopt the same strategy for dealing with the upcoming crises as he has in the past. He still won’t negotiate over the debt limit, but he is open to reaching a budget deal if Republicans are willing to put everything on the table. “The President has insisted that in these budget negotiations that he’s been calling for all year, everything has to be on the table, and that will be his position going forward,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said Wednesday.

And if Republicans don’t, Obama will be ready to brand them as uncompromising.