President Obama is taking a tough stance in his latest budget showdown with Republicans, refusing to allow cuts to Obamacare or negotiate over the debt ceiling. The hardline approach has rallied progressives but could prove risky with voters -- and cement charges Obama is aloof and unwilling to engage with Congress.
Obama isn’t extending any olive branches to Republicans ahead of key fiscal deadlines to keep government funded and to raise the debt ceiling.
Obama has hammered away at the GOP, notably in a speech the day of the mass shooting at the Washington Navy Yard in which he said Republicans were “willing to tank” the economy to score political points.
With days left to avoid a shutdown, the White House said that Obama is “likely” to sit down with congressional leaders. In a brief phone call last week to House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, Obama insisted he would not allow lawmakers to block funds for health reform or tie the debt limit to further cuts.
There are clear risks to Obama’s strategy: A shutdown or default could make the president appear weak or ineffective.
The White House, though, believes Obama will appear principled and the GOP will look like obstructionists if no deal is reached. Obama surrogates argue that amid Republican infighting, the president seems reasonable by comparison.
Veterans of previous government-shutdown fights say Obama is making an already toxic political environment even worse by touting himself as above the political horse-trading on Capitol Hill.
“Clinton was prepared to triangulate. I'm not sure this president is — he's an ideologue,” said former Rep. Bob Walker, R-Pa., who as deputy whip watched the GOP get blamed for the 1995 shutdown.
“He's made no effort whatsoever to talk to rank-and-file members. They're livid with the fact that the White House has ignored them. Congress has the impression that the president has contempt for them — that's bipartisan,” Walker added.
Administration officials scoff at the idea that Obama could heal tensions with a round of golf, a White House dinner or old-school arm-twisting.
When the White House canceled the annual September picnic with lawmakers, their response to congressional grumbling was not sympathetic: Get over it.
“So the president should be punished for not negotiating with Republicans who start from a position that has no bearing in reality?” a senior administration official said dismissively. “Sure, that makes perfect sense.”
Obama, like President Clinton before him, believes Republicans have more to lose in a shutdown.
Some Republicans agree that conservatives are making a mistake by tying Obamacare to a shutdown threat.
Americans are increasingly wary of Obamacare, and on the issue of chronic deficits and mushrooming debt, are sympathetic to the GOP. But polls also show a majority oppose shutting down the government over health care reform.
The shutdown fight will likely spill over into the debt ceiling debate, with both sides risking another credit downgrade amid a slow economic recovery.
The GOP leadership believes the debt-ceiling debate is particularly challenging for the White House and the easiest way to extract spending cuts from Obama.
Critics also say that regardless of Congress’ missteps, Obama owns the economy.
“When Obama argues that 'Republicans are stopping me from creating jobs,' people are like 'Yeah, right,'" former Congressional Budget Office Director Douglas Holtz-Eakin said.
But Holtz-Eakin warns that Republicans should be cautious. “The public agrees with Republicans on the policies, but that doesn't change the politics. If you shut down the government, congressional Republicans lose their advantage,” he said.
Will Obama, whose last election is behind him, refuse to blink or capitulate at the risk of a shutdown or default, which he concedes could undermine his own economic agenda?
In past budget fights, Obama ultimately negotiated with Republicans in the final moments. Some believe Obama's tough talk is more bluster than credible threat.
“We've seen this movie before,” Holtz-Eakin said of Obama's ultimatum to Republicans. “I don't think people find it terribly compelling.”