To the dismay of many in the audience, Obama conceded that he probably couldn’t — and probably wouldn’t — push too hard because he was unwilling to risk a U.S. government default.
“I have no choice,” the president said, according to one participant.
Citing a faction of House conservatives dead-set on opposing any compromise, Obama said he was not “going to stand here and pretend to you that I can just look the other way” if hardball negotiations lead to an economic crisis, according to another person in the room.
Obama is a relative newcomer to the kind of tough negotiating with Republicans that will define the remainder of his term. It’s not a role he faced as a legislator, and during his first two years in office, he scored victories in a Democratic-controlled Congress. In the past nine months, though, Obama has found himself engineering three major budget deals with Republicans.
Obama surprised some of the senators in the room that May day with the answer he gave at the outset of the latest of those negotiations. They suddenly realized that their bottom line, at least in this case, was much different from the one being laid out by the president leading their charge.
For many, it was also an early and revealing glimpse of what they think was an overly cautious negotiating style that they would watch unfold — at times with horror — over the next several weeks. Some thought that Obama, who had already embraced some of the cuts Republicans demanded, had given up too much too soon.
“One side is enormously aggressive in pushing an agenda, and the other is saying, ‘Let’s all get along,’” said Sen. Bernard Sanders, a Vermont independent who caucuses with Democrats and was one of the lawmakers questioning Obama in May. “So who do you think is going to win?”
As the two parties turn to the next battles in the grand ideological war over taxes and spending, how Obama operates in those face-to-face negotiations with Republicans will have enormous consequences for his political future, his party and the country.
White House officials believe the president’s approach will pay off politically. They think the image of him as a reasonable compromiser fits with what most voters are looking for, especially the centrist independents who are turning their backs on the Democratic Party. But many Democrats fear that Obama is giving too much ground on the party’s core values at a time when Republicans are unified in their quest to shrink the size and scope of government.
For the country, how the president negotiates will go a long way toward setting the terms for what lawmakers in both parties consider the defining questions of their time: What will Medicare and Social Security look like? How big will the military be? How much will the wealthy pay in taxes? How will the country care for its poor, sick and vulnerable?