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Shutdown threat tests Obama leadership style

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This has been a season of leadership tests for President Obama. From Egypt to Libya and now the budget, he has been called upon to deal with rapidly unfolding events, and the questions about his leadership style have followed a consistent pattern.

Is he too slow to react? Is he diffident in the face of serious challenges? Is he reluctant to exercise the full powers of the presidency? Would events have turned out differently had he moved with greater force earlier?

If Obama has shown anything in his two-plus years in the White House, it is a combination of substantive ambition and procedural caution. Add to that an innate distaste for ideological confrontation and his dislike for the demands of the 24/7 news cycle that often rules Washington’s political community.

His advisers argue that his forward thinking, his persistence and his patience have produced desired results and allowed him to achieve notable successes. But they have come at the price of doubts about the strength of his leadership and his commitment to take on the fights that his supporters think are necessary.

The battle over this year’s federal budget is the latest example. For weeks, Republicans have called on the president to get his hands dirty in the struggle to fund the government for the current fiscal year and thereby avoid a government shutdown. For weeks, he resisted. Now, in the past few days, he has dived in.

Obama has summoned House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), the two key players on Capitol Hill, to the White House repeatedly for meetings. He has expressed publicly his exasperation that Congress has not acted. He has prodded lawmakers around the table at the White House. And he has left the details to be worked out by his and the other leaders’ staffs.

His advisers see all of this as part of a larger strategy aimed at minimizing potential damage to the economy by keeping the government running and avoiding a partisan blowup that could vastly complicate what everyone expects will be an even tougher set of negotiations over next year’s budget and the future of federal entitlement programs.

Obama’s critics on the right say he has impugned their motives and used the tea party as a red herring to give him an advantage in the battle for public opinion. They argue that he has not yet shown he is serious about tackling the deficit.

Had he been interested in real compromise, they say, he would have done what he did in December, when he quietly put together a deal to extend the tax cuts passed under President George W. Bush. “Why wasn’t that the model?” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said Thursday. “He could have brought us in in January, February, March and talked to us about this, prior to getting to the expiration point. He didn’t. There wasn’t any interest in doing it.”

Obama’s critics on the left take the opposite view. They fret that he is so committed to avoiding partisan mud fights that he has been unwilling to draw bright lines with Republicans and take the case to the public.

“His instinct is to avoid conflict and to deliver on his promise of getting beyond ideological partisan debates,” said Thomas Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

But Mann said that style of leadership may have run its course, given the wide gulf between the parties on budget priorities. “I think it’s come close to the end of the line for him,” he added. “And this is a really truly fateful moment in his presidency. ... It’s time for him to engage.”

What explains the president’s approach? Everything from personal temperament to lessons learned to political survival, according to other politicians and independent analysts.

“The public is used to presidents trying to bend history and shape events,” said conservative analyst Pete Wehner. “He seems to be something of a counter-puncher. He’s a person of liberal ambitions but a cautious temperament.”

Obama learned from his long struggle to enact health-care reform the political damage of becoming too closely identified with the messy process of passing legislation on Capitol Hill. That is probably one reason he kept his distance on this round of the budget fight.

The midterm election losses reminded the president’s advisers that his reelection will depend to a great degree on his ability to win back the votes of independents, who prefer compromise to confrontation and results to political point-scoring.

Obama came to Washington promising to change the tone and move beyond partisanship. Although the capital and the country remain deeply polarized, Obama has returned to those themes in the wake of the midterm elections in an effort to appeal to the middle of the electorate.

Republicans don’t fully buy that description. They see a president who can be arrogant, preachy and condescending, whether in his public comments or private meetings with congressional leaders.

Obama set his strategic priorities months ago, once the Democratic-controlled Congress was unable to pass a long-term funding bill during the lame-duck session last year, according to a senior White House official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share some of the administration’s thinking about the budget battle.

“We do not want a government shutdown,” the official said. “It would be bad for the economy. So the question was, how do we maximize our chances of avoiding that — though it may be unavoidable. We worked back from that.”

The official said that led the president to refrain from any public flaying of the deep spending cuts the House approved at the beginning of the year, despite pressure from the left to do so. “You could score points on various cuts they made,” he said. “But to do that would lessen chances of getting a deal at the end.”

Obama might be motivated, as well, by the reality that there may be no clear winners from a shutdown. Sixteen years ago, President Bill Clinton was battling House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) over the budget, a fight that eventually led to a shutdown that badly hurt Republicans.

But Clinton had the upper hand politically, because Gingrich was unpopular. Boehner has a different profile with the public, “not nearly as threatening as Gingrich was,” said Andrew Kohut of the Pew Research Center.

One other factor may have contributed to Obama’s strategy — the recognition that this fight is but a prelude to a more titanic struggle over deficits and entitlements that will begin later in the year, although some people think it has hardened lines.

“Both sides are testing the limits of how far they can go and what the public will accept,” Gingrich said Thursday. “Each side is afraid that caving now will make it even more difficult in the much bigger fights ahead.”

Sen. Michael F. Bennet (D-Colo.) said the current talks seem “to defy the law of physics or the law of negotiation. There’s a lot of arm-waving and politicking around a very small amount of money, compared to the disruption that would be caused by a closure of the government.”

As in all the leadership tests he has faced, the Obama record will rest on whether his style, seen by some scholars as almost unique among presidents, produces productive results. The deadline on round one is coming fast.

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