The bipartisan deal to reopen the federal government and avoid a default is a clear victory for the White House, but likely a short-lived one with President Obama facing a number of unresolved challenges on the horizon.
Obama was rewarded for his hardline stance during the fiscal feud, essentially getting what he demanded from the start: a funding bill and debt-limit increase with virtually no policy concessions.
White House officials were careful not to publicly gloat but believe Obama’s hand was strengthened by the public’s rejection of Republicans’ strategy during the first shutdown in 17 years.
“The president did exactly what he said he would do,” one senior administration official said. “He didn’t play games. Yes, he deserves credit for that.”
White House officials are also putting Republicans on notice, insisting Obama will never again negotiate around what they see as basic fiscal governance.
The latest accord, though, is only a short-term solution and unlikely to have a major impact on the looming debates that will define the president’s legacy.
Under the deal crafted by Senate leaders, the nation's borrowing limit is extended through Feb. 7 and the government funded through Jan. 15. A bipartisan budget committee will also report back by Dec. 13 on a broader possible fiscal package.
The White House and Congress could soon be re-fighting the same budget battles early next year, again putting Obama’s policy agenda on the backburner.
“This certainly is a victory for a White House that hasn’t had many victories this year,” said Stephen Hess, a former adviser to Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, and now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
“But the president’s second term is like an hourglass with the sand running out; he has certainly wasted a lot of time dealing with other things — and he still doesn’t know how to deal with an opposition Congress.”
Obama on Wednesday night said he was eager to move ahead with the rest of his agenda.
“I've got some thoughts about how we can move forward in the remainder of the year and stay focused on the job at hand, because there is a lot of work ahead of us, including our need to earn back the trust of the American people that has been lost over the last few weeks,” said the president, moments after the Senate approved the debt bill and sent it to the House. “And we can begin to do that by addressing the real issues that they care about.”
In the days before Congress voted on the fiscal measure, the White House was already turning its attention to the battle over immigration reform and the rollout of Obamacare.
Obama pledged this week to again press lawmakers on immigration reform once Congress reopened the federal government and lifted the debt ceiling.
But despite Democratic pressure, House conservatives have shown no sign they will embrace a bipartisan Senate immigration reform bill or move quickly on a comprehensive plan.
And since launching registration for health insurance exchanges this month, the administration has also been on the defensive about whether it was prepared for the high-volume of Americans seeking information about Obamacare. With the government shutdown in the rear-view, the Obamacare debate is likely to again take center stage in Washington.
Hoping to use a political game of chicken to dismantle Obamacare, Republicans were unable to significantly alter the president’s signature legislative achievement, even though the American public remains wary of the health care reforms.
The funding and debt bill includes a measure to verify income levels for those seeking Obamacare benefits but does not delay a medical device tax or eliminate health care subsidies given to Congress and their staffs — provisions included in earlier GOP proposals.
Obama preserved his signature legislative achievement, but for better or worse, Democrats now own it.
“Let’s wait and see what the scoreboard looks like in January,” GOP strategist Brian Donahue said. “There’s going to be a lot of Republicans scratching their heads [about the government-shutdown fight], but Democrats shouldn’t hold a ticker-tape parade.”
“A greater share of the public will recognize how flawed Obamacare is,” Donahue added.
The White House has been emboldened by a series of polls showing the public disapproved of how Republicans handled the fiscal standoff.
For their part, even GOP leaders were left to lament a strategy gone awry.
“We fought the good fight; we just didn’t win,” Speaker John Boehner conceded to an Ohio radio station Wednesday.
Still, Obama’s marks in recent surveys were hardly glowing, just less dismal than those received by the GOP.
And some progressives privately warn against the White House becoming cocky or reading too much into the shutdown and debt-ceiling clashes.
The dynamics of the next fiscal clash will shift in at least one critical way.
Democrats have long wanted to lessen the impact of across-the-board cuts imposed on federal programs by sequestration, concessions Republicans are unwilling to make without a commitment from progressives to tackle entitlement spending and other long-term drivers of the $17 trillion national debt.
Despite continual White House warnings, Americans responded to sequestration with a collective shrug.
Some Republicans say a laser-like focus on government spending, rather than undoing Obamacare, will bolster their cause.
GOP leaders point out that sequester cuts are the “law of the land,” which they claim as an advantage during the next round of negotiations. If no deal is reached, the spending reductions go into effect next year regardless of Democratic objections.
“We got our butts kicked,” admitted one senior GOP House aide of the latest fiscal standoff. “We’ve got plenty to work out. We’ll learn from this. I like our chances next time around."