The problem with President Obama’s shutdown strategy

October 9, 2013

Being president of a divided country is basically an impossible job. To get anything done, you have to try to persuade the American people to support you. But the act of persuading the American people makes the opposition party more determined to oppose you.

This is the paradox of presidential leadership: When the president publicly leads, the minority party becomes less likely to follow.

(Photo by Sergey Guneev/EPA)
(Sergey Guneev/EPA)

On Tuesday, President Obama held a lengthy news conference on the shutdown. "Members of Congress, and the House Republicans in particular," he said, "don't get to demand ransom in exchange for doing their jobs. And two of their very basic jobs are passing a budget and making sure that America's paying its bills. They don't also get to say, you know, unless you give me what the voters rejected in the last election, I'm going to cause a recession. That's not how it works. No American president would deal with a foreign leader like this. Most of you would not deal with either co-workers or business associates in this fashion. And we shouldn't be dealing this way here in Washington."

What he was doing in the news conference made sense: He was arguing to the press and to the American people that the shutdown was the GOP's fault and that it would end -- and broader negotiations could begin -- as soon as Republicans decided to reopen the government.

The political theory here is clear: Obama is trying to marshal public opinion against the GOP. If enough Republicans are getting angry calls from their constituents and seeing polls that look disastrous for their party, they'll find a way to back down.

But it can backfire badly. Every second Obama stood at that podium made it a bit harder for the Republican Party to retreat. The more he repeats that this is their shutdown and they need to end it, the more their party suffers if they can't find a way to prove the president wrong. Obama's efforts to move public opinion toward  him also moves  Republican opinion against him.

Frances Lee, a political scientist at the University of Maryland, has studied the effect of presidential polarization on the U.S. Congress. In her book “Beyond Ideology,” she shows that when the president announces his position on an issue -- even an uncontroversial one -- it increases the likelihood of a party-line vote.

“Whatever people think about raw policy issues, they’re aware that presidential successes will help the president’s party and hurt the opposing party,” Lee told me. “It’s not to say they're entirely cynical, but the fact that success is useful to the president’s party is going to have an effect on how members respond.”

When the shutdown began, Obama wasn't much of a player in it. In fact, when the shutdown began, it was more of a Republican vs. Republican story than Republican vs. Democrat. A shutdown was a loss for John Boehner and a win for Ted Cruz.

But now Obama is a player. If the government is cleanly reopened, that's a win for Obama and a loss for John Boehner. More importantly, it's a win for Democrats and a loss for Republicans. And that makes it a much tougher problem to resolve because it unites Republicans who are against the shutdown strategy but even more against losing to Barack Obama.

The Washington Examiner's Byron York interviewed an anonymous Republican congressman about the shutdown. The congressman was clearly not happy that Republicans had let themselves end up in this position. "This isn't exactly the fight I think Republicans wanted to have, certainly that the leadership wanted to have," he said.

But that didn't matter anymore. Obama, the congressman continued, is "going to try to humiliate the speaker in front of his conference. And how effective a negotiating partner do you think he'll be then? You're putting the guy in a position where he's got nothing to lose, because you're not giving him anything to win."

You can see the results in the collapse of the GOP's demands. They're not trying to undo Obamacare anymore. They're embracing the kind of budget commissions they've spent six months opposing. They're just trying to find some way to eke out a win. This isn't about the policy anymore. It's about Obama. And Obama isn't giving Republicans a clear path to backing down without looking like they lost.

The White House knows this perfectly well. They just don't believe it's healthy to bend and buckle until Republicans find a way out. It's not their job, they say, to help Boehner out of promises he shouldn't have made. They weren't the ones who promised their base that the debt ceiling would be a moment of triumph. They weren't the ones who bowed to pressure from their extreme wing and chose a reckless strategy of brinksmanship. They weren't the ones who set up a political dynamic in which keeping the government open and paying our bills counts as "a loss" for one party or the other. Boehner needs to learn to stop writing checks he can't cash.

All that may be true. But the White House is still pursuing a strategy that makes it harder for Boehner and the Republicans to back down. Their gamble is that the power of public opinion will overwhelm the power of presidential polarization. And if the Republican Party loses totally -- loses in a way where they can't tell themselves it was a win -- that'll be the end of these tactics.

It might be a bet worth making. But it's still a bet. And every time Obama goes out and lashes the Republicans for shutting down the government, the stakes get a little bit higher.

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