The last time the federal government shut down over a budget impasse – in the winter of 1995-96 – lawmakers on Capitol Hill couldn’t get President Bill Clinton to leave the negotiating table. This time, lawmakers can’t get President Barack Obama to join in.
Obama has never relished the back-and-forth of detailed policy negotiations. But with public opinion on his side and no re-election campaign ahead, there’s even less incentive for him to engage in fiscal talks this time around, especially after failing at his previous attempts to cut a deal with House Republicans.
There’s also little reason to engage in a full-blown negotiation now when another fight – arguably a much bigger one – looms in the coming weeks. The government is expected to exhaust its borrowing authority in mid-October, threatening a default for the first time in history unless Congress acts.
“His hands-off approach is perfectly understandable,” said William Galston, a former policy adviser to Clinton who’s a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a center-left policy research center. “Why should he get involved in a congressional spat?”
Obama has remained largely on the sidelines.
He says he will not negotiate with congressional leaders until after they reopen the government at current spending levels, and repeatedly blames House Republicans for the shutdown that has slashed federal services and furloughed hundreds of thousands of employees.
Presidents have long differed in their approaches. Some, such as Obama and George W. Bush, are content to leave the schmoozing and lobbying of lawmakers to their aides. Others, such as Clinton or Lyndon B. Johnson, thrived on it.
Stephen J. Wayne, a Georgetown University professor specializing in presidential leadership, said Obama’s attempt in 2011 to work out a deal with House Speaker John Boehner – a so-called grand bargain that would have resulted in $4 trillion in savings over a decade – was the exception, not the rule.
“It’s certainly not his style,” Wayne said. “He doesn’t like trench warfare. He would much rather use the bully pulpit.”
Last year, Obama and Boehner, R-Ohio, reluctantly met again briefly to try to negotiate a last-minute deal on taxes. But in the final hours, Obama dispatched his Mr. Fix It – Vice President Joe Biden, a Senate veteran and old-school politician – to Capitol Hill to hammer out a compromise with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
Obama was furious when Boehner walked away from their talks in 2011, and to a lesser extent in 2012, after the speaker ran into opposition from conservative House Republicans who wanted more spending cuts and fewer taxes. The president and his allies speak often of the failed 2011 talks as a turning point in a rocky relationship, saying Obama can’t trust Boehner to deliver results.
Where Clinton had a foil in then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Obama does not have a single person to negotiate with on the budget. “Why is he going to negotiate with Boehner, who doesn’t have control of the problem?” said Democratic political consultant Drew Lieberman.
Obama told CNBC this week that he’s “bent over backwards” to work with Republicans, referring to his talks with Boehner as well as a series of dinners this year, primarily with Senate Republicans, to try to strike a new grand bargain. But much like the talks with the speaker, the dinners with senators ended this summer with no deal.
The president called the four congressional leaders Monday, before the shutdown, and then invited them to the White House Wednesday. Both times he told them he would not negotiate, leaving Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to try to work out a deal.
John Feehery, a Republican political consultant and former congressional aide, said Obama leaves negotiating to others because he never built the relationships with members of Capitol Hill, either as a senator or president.
“I don’t think he gets involved because he doesn’t know what he’s doing,” Feehery said. “I think there’s an art to negotiations. He’s not very good at it.”
Republicans and Democrats alike say Obama would have more incentive to get involved if he faced another election and needed to appear as if he were trying to solve the problem.
Besides, as of right now, Republicans in Congress have been receiving more of the blame for the shutdown than Obama. In a CBS poll released Thursday, 44 percent of Americans blame Republicans while only 35 percent blame Democrats.
Andrew Kohut, the founding director of the Pew Research Center, said Obama faces a tricky situation because while Republicans are being blamed more for the shutdown, the health care law that the GOP wants to postpone as part of budget negotiations remains unpopular.
But while Obama cares about his legacy after he leaves the White House, he’s betting that the health care law, his signature domestic achievement, will have a more lasting effect than a temporary shutdown.
White House spokesman Jay Carney bristled this week when he was asked again and again if Obama bears any blame in the shutdown since he has not engaged in negotiations.
“He certainly did not vote to shut the government down,” he said. “The Republicans did.”