Government Shutdown: How Obama Rose Above

While Boehner and the Democrats squabbled over relatively meaningless cuts, the president sat back and played referee. Howard Kurtz on how White House escaped most of the blame—for now.

After weeks of looking on as congressional leaders squabbled, President Obama left the sidelines and immersed himself in the budget talks, pulling out a deal in the final hours.

By positioning himself as the grownup on the playground, he would have escaped most of the blame had the government shut down. And John Boehner knew it.

“The president looks like the referee,” says Jenny Backus, a Democratic strategist and former administration official. “He brings the warring kids into the Oval to negotiate a deal.” As for Obama’s detached negotiating style, Backus says: “He stayed out of it long enough that he doesn’t own the mess.”

Republicans, of course, see it differently. Kevin Madden, a former Mitt Romney adviser, says the impasse was “very risky for the president because he’s always faced questions about his leadership, and the shutdown could exacerbate that problem.” After what Madden described as Obama’s sluggish response to the BP oil spill and the rebellion in Libya, “this is a president who is lacking in executive skills.”

Political experts say the shutdown showdown isn’t likely to have much impact on the 2012 campaign, in part because most of the potential Republican candidates are Washington outsiders with no involvement in the Beltway brawl. They have had little to say about the confrontation as Boehner seized center stage. One exception is Rep. Michele Bachmann, who supported her party’s demands but said she would give up her salary out of solidarity with military families if the government’s doors are closed.

The endgame to this bitter clash could have altered the narrative of the Obama presidency. It would be a mistake to assume that a shutdown would have played out precisely as it did in 1995 and 1996, when Bill Clinton got a boost by making Newt Gingrich look irresponsible and then shellacked the other Republican leader, Bob Dole, at the polls. There is a greater public appetite for budget cutting these days. Still, if Obama is seen as steering a middle course between unyielding partisans, that could buff his centrist credentials.

Blame-shifting is a high art in Washington; now both sides can argue about who brought the country back from the brink.

“He has the ability to be the big compromiser at the end,” says strategist Joe Trippi, Howard Dean’s former campaign manager. The big losers, in his view, are “the Tea Party folks. They’re being marginalized by their own party, and Democrats as well, as kind of fringe, too far over the edge.”

But all these predictions were, by necessity, tenuous. Once the spotlight shifted from the political gamesmanship to the human impact of a shutdown—soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan not getting checks, passport offices closed, national parks off limits—everyone knew an angry public would start pointing fingers.

A lengthy shutdown would have carried “more risk for everybody, including the president and the Democrats,” Backus says. “It looks like no one’s governing.”

One thing is clear: both parties have been playing to their core constituencies. In an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, 56 percent of Republicans don’t want their leaders to compromise—a figure that rises to 68 percent among Tea Party supporters. By contrast, 71 percent of Democrats and independents want the Democrats to reach a deal.

One lingering mystery is why House conservatives didn’t declare victory earlier. They got Harry Reid’s party to pony up $33 billion in spending cuts, then to boost that number to $39 billion—almost two-thirds of the way toward the House GOP’s opening bid of $61 billion. Keep in mind that this is just for the remaining six months of the 2011 fiscal year, so any resulting gap of a couple of billion amounts to little more than a rounding error. The real heavy lifting is on next year’s budget, where a Republican faction led by Paul Ryan wants to overhaul Medicare and Medicaid.

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But the plot line of the last 48 hours has been that the GOP’s insistence on ideological changes, such as defunding Planned Parenthood, is what derailed a potential deal. That’s why a group of female senators held a news conference Friday and the Dems keep talking about how this is all about women’s health. That’s why Republican Jon Kyl took to the Senate floor to say that 90 percent of what Planned Parenthood does is perform abortions, when the actual figure is 3 percent (prompting a spokesman’s strange explanation that Kyl’s comments were “not intended to be a factual statement.”)

“The Democrats have essentially agreed to the numbers,” Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster, said hours before the late-night deal. “The only thing left are the social issues the Republicans are trying to force into the budget fight. It’s pretty clear the Tea Party and the far right want to shut it down in order to make a point.”

Somehow, the Wall Street Journal editorial page reached the opposite conclusion, saying “it sure looked as if President Obama wouldn't mind a shutdown and thinks he'd benefit politically from it.”

Blame-shifting is a high art in Washington; now both sides can argue about who brought the country back from the brink.

“I don’t know that there’s a huge benefit for one side or the other,” says Dan Schnur, a former Republican strategist who directs the politics institute at the University of Southern California. The endless negotiations dragged on, he says, because Obama and Boehner had to “deal with the political physics that make up the bases of their respective parties.”

Howard Kurtz is The Daily Beast's Washington bureau chief. He also hosts CNN's weekly media program Reliable Sources on Sundays at 11 a.m. ET. The longtime media reporter and columnist for The Washington Post, Kurtz is the author of five books.