Congressional Democrats have made no secret of their belief that Obama yielded too easily to Republicans in the debt-ceiling negotiations of 2011, which laid the groundwork for the automatic spending cuts, known as the sequester, that have constrained spending for many popular programs.
“They still complain we sold them out in 2011,” said a White House official who requested anonymity to speak freely about the internal dynamics of the impasse. “We were jonesing for a deal too badly.”
Many also contend he could have gotten a better deal in the “fiscal cliff” talks at the end of last year, which left sequestration in place and the threat of another debt-limit clash on the table.
For his part, Obama was concerned that Democratic senators would be unable to resist the impulse for freelancing and deal-cutting that is so much a part of the Senate culture, and he worried that those deals could weaken his hand and that of their House colleagues.
When the president met with House Democrats on Wednesday afternoon, he got a laugh by invoking Will Rogers’s famous line: “I am not a member of any organized political party. I am a Democrat.”
But Obama turned serious, telling the House members, “All of you have shown extraordinary unity.”
That was not a foregone conclusion when all of this began. Right up until the final days before the fiscal year ended Sept. 30, Obama and Democratic leaders believed that House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) would find a way to avert a government shutdown by passing a stopgap spending bill.
Boehner, they thought, had assured them as much over the summer. That was when Reid agreed, with the White House’s assent, to set spending levels in the short-term funding bill at sequestration levels, rather than the higher amount that liberals and many in the House were hoping to see.
“That’s not a settlement. That’s simply adopting the Republican position,” House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) said in an interview last month. “I don’t agree with the White House. I think the White House is making a mistake, and I’ve told them so.”
But with that deal in hand, Obama’s team and congressional Democratic leaders did not take that seriously the bellicose rhetoric that was coming out of the tea party faction of the GOP.
“It’s in their self-interest to solve this without a catastrophe, and they know it,” a White House official predicted confidently less than a week before the shutdown.
And given the damage that Washington had done to the economy by flirting with a default on government debt in 2011, “I thought after that, Boehner knew better than to go through this again,” Durbin said. “I was totally wrong.”