Can Obama seize the moment and make Washington work?

Key moments from President Obama's speech the morning after Congress passed a deal to raise the debt ceiling and reopen the government. (The Washington Post)
Dan Balz
Chief correspondent October 17, 2013

It’s rare when a president is given an opportunity to reboot in the middle of a term, but that’s what the end of the government shutdown has provided President Obama. The question now is: What will he do with it?

The first clues came Thursday morning and produced an ambiguous answer. Speaking for the first time after signing the bill that reopened the federal government, Obama was both conciliatory and challenging, offering outreach to some and a scolding to others.

Dan Balz is Chief Correspondent at The Washington Post. He has served as the paper’s National Editor, Political Editor, White House correspondent and Southwest correspondent. View Archive

His calls for bipartisan cooperation were aimed at what he called the “responsible” Republicans who in the end yielded to the obvious — that their party could not allow itself to be blamed for the first U.S. debt default in history as well as the first federal shutdown in 17 years — and voted to reopen the government and extend its borrowing power.

Obama focused his anger, or exasperation, on those hard-liners in the opposition party who were spurred on by the tea party wing of the GOP and whose tactics led the Republicans into a battle that they could not win and that significantly diminished the party in the eyes of many Americans.

Scorekeepers have done a running tally of winners and losers from this latest spectacle. On Thursday, Obama declared that there were no winners, but he knows better. He won this round, and his opposition is in more disarray than ever. That the opposition is now badly split was obvious from the votes in the Senate and the House on Wednesday night: A majority of House Republicans opposed the bill that reopened the government. Republicans have their own battles to fight.

Some of The Washington Post's best political minds weigh in on the costs of governing crisis-to-crisis. (The Washington Post)

Against a divided foe, with unity among his Democratic forces, Obama might now have an opportunity to lead in ways he hasn’t been able to for most of this year and much of his first term. His success or failure is likely to depend on his ability to exploit those divisions in his and the country’s interests.

In some ways, Thursday was a third Inauguration Day for the president after another bitter campaign. His first inauguration was a moment of high hopes and great expectations amid the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Within months, the era of good feeling had given way to partisan infighting.

Opposition strategy

After sizable losses in 2006 and 2008, Republicans decided in early 2009 that their way back to power was to oppose Obama at virtually every turn. The president moved ahead anyway, pushing through his agenda — including the Affordable Care Act — with Democratic votes only.

The backlash came in 2010 when dissatisfaction with the economy and an opposition energized by the tea party movement helped deal Obama and the Democrats a huge defeat in the midterm elections. That brought divided government back to Washington and also a new crop of House Republicans playing by new rules that turned their leaders into followers.

Divided government and implacable resistance from the tea party faction in the House helped produce even more confrontation and a messy debt-ceiling battle that produced no winners on either side. Obama came out of that fight demoralized and determined to take his case to the people in the 2012 election rather than trying to work with Republicans in Congress.

He was emboldened by his reelection. His second inaugural address was strikingly different from the first — more assertive, more impatient, more dismissive of those he viewed as obstructionist, more celebratory of the new America coalition that had given him a second term.

Obama had high hopes last winter for gun control and immigration, and even perhaps fixing the economy and striking a budget agreement. Gun control quickly died in the Senate. Immigration has been stalled in the House. Budget talks never got to the serious stage, despite two years of informal discussions among senators of both parties. The economy continues to recover slowly.

That’s where things stood a few weeks ago, before House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) yielded to the demands of his tea party members and brought about the shutdown and brinkmanship over the debt ceiling.

The speaker’s efforts expired with one last legislative gasp Tuesday when he and other House leaders could not command a majority of their own members and were forced to abandon a planned floor vote on the measure. It was left to Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to strike the deal that reopened the government.

Obama will continue to face unyielding opposition from the tea party Republicans in the House and the Senate. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) made that clear Wednesday when he denounced the Senate compromise and praised those in the House whose opposition to the health-care law triggered the crisis.

The key now is whether the president has a strategy to govern around them by winning support from what he called the responsible Republicans.

Obama’s agenda

On Thursday, Obama called on Congress to focus on three priorities. But he offered few specifics about what he will ask and what he will give. Nor is it clear whether he has a strategy to win the support of some Republicans.

The first priority he talked about was the economy and the budget. Budget negotiations will resume with the goal of reaching an agreement by mid-December, lest the country face a repeat of what just happened.

Obama wants to replace the across-the-board spending reductions that have cut indiscriminately with more sensible spending priorities. He also says he is willing to negotiate over entitlements programs. He wants any agreement to include more revenue, although Republicans say he got his revenue package at the end of 2012. Republicans who opposed the shutdown (but quietly went along with it) are skeptical that Obama is truly willing to make concessions to get a satisfactory deal.

The two other legislative priorities the president cited were immigration reform and passage of the farm bill. No one can say what the prospects are for passage of an immigration bill. Much of that still depends on how House GOP leaders decide whether it is in the party’s long-term interest to pass it. Obama did not mention what should be his other major priority, the health-care law, whose implementation has gotten off to a stumbling start, to put it mildly.

All of that is on the table. Meanwhile, there is a question of how engaged Obama will be in the grinding work of trying to produce compromise with potentially willing Republicans.

Leon Panetta, who served in Obama’s Cabinet, in Bill Clinton’s White House and as a member of the House before that, told a breakfast held by the Wall Street Journal that past failures are no reason for the White House to disengage. “In this town, you’ve got to stay with it and stay at it,” he said.

It’s possible that the divisions in the Republican Party and the determination of its tea party wing to continue its fight against the health-care law and the president’s agenda will doom any prospects for more effective governance for the duration of Obama’s term. But the shutdown battle has given the president a fresh opportunity to show what he is prepared to do to produce the kind of bipartisanship he long has promised.

Comments
Show Comments
Most Read Politics