Presidents are traditionally the stars of America’s unruly political drama. So, what does a president do when he isn’t — and the country is on the verge of crisis?
Answering that question has been President Obama’s challenge, in ways political and personal, since the government shutdown more than two weeks ago.
His pledge not to negotiate with congressional Republicans over raising the borrowing limit and reopening the government has left him more observer than actor as the country stumbles toward a cash crunch.
The strategy may be working, judging from polls showing Republicans bearing most of the blame for the crisis. But it has also left him with a public relations dilemma: how to project activity around negotiations he has pledged not to be a part of.
His scheduled trip to Asia, where he was scheduled to meet with world leaders at a pair of regional summits, would have helped him strike the balance. Halfway around the world carrying out the country’s foreign policy, Obama could have easily dismissed the Capitol Hill conversations as a sideshow featuring others, not the chief executive.
But he canceled that annual diplomatic mission, leaving an extra week to fill, but not with “negotiations.” Instead, he has advertised his daily updates on the Hill talks, visited a small Rockville construction company to highlight everyday economic anxieties over the standoff, made sandwiches at a soup kitchen suffering the effects, and appeared before the White House press corps with an arsenal of angry metaphors describing Republican tactics.
He has also hosted congressional Democrats at the White House for unity pep talks and met with congressional Republicans for non-negotiation negotiations.
“He’s certainly not happy about this situation, but he’s given it a great deal of thought since August 2011 and knew that there would be another moment like this,” said a senior administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss Obama’s thinking since the last near-default. “He has thought a lot about what his role and responsibility would be, and that it is essential that he stare this down.”
Obama’s one-degree-of-separation from the fiscal negotiations has brought criticism, not only from Republican leaders but from allies such as former defense secretary Leon E. Panetta, who accused the president this week of refusing to “roll up his sleeves” to get a deal. His meetings with Republicans at the White House have been described by participants more as lectures than give-and-take talks.
But beyond the principle Obama has said is at stake — that presidents should not be threatened with economic calamity by an opposition party that could not achieve its agenda through national elections — there is also a practical political consideration for the role he has assumed.
Speaking Tuesday to WABC in New York, Obama said he understands that when House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) is seen working with the Democratic president by the conservative wing of his caucus, the results are counterproductive.
“It weakens him,” Obama told WABC, one of several local television stations he spoke to this week. “So there have been repeated situations where we have agreements, then he goes back and it turns out that he can’t control his caucus. So the challenge here is, can you deliver on agreements that are made?”
It is a lesson Obama and his advisers believe they learned in the long summer of 2011, when the president courted Boehner on the golf course and in White House meetings in search of an elusive “grand bargain.”
Boehner, the White House believes, was eager to reach such a deal, a mix of tax increases on the wealthy, entitlement cuts and spending revisions unpopular in their own way to elements of each party. But he could not deliver his increasingly conservative caucus.
The summer ended with a blow to America’s credit rating and to Obama’s poll ratings, which showed him at an all-time low on the eve of an election year.
“Everybody has brooded about structural barriers that kind of allow that one Republican faction to have outsized impact,” said David Axelrod, Obama’s former chief political strategist who remains in touch with the president. “That’s something he certainly understands, but the question now is how to move forward.”
So far, moving forward has meant standing fast for the president. He has adopted something of an East Room strategy, with an unscheduled stroll with Vice President Biden to a nearby gourmet sandwich stop thrown in.
As Senate and House Republicans struggled in recent days for agreement within the party, Obama, as commander in chief, awarded the Medal of Honor to retired Army Capt. William Swenson for heroism in Afghanistan.
The contrast between those stirring moments in the ornate White House East Room and the confusion on Capitol Hill was stark and, perhaps, beneficial to a president with sleeves rolled down.
“He’s not a brooder, not someone who wrings his hands and gnashes his teeth,” Axelrod said. “He just plays through.”