Obama’s positioning for spending fights benefits from careful planning, but unforeseen events play major role

President Obama this month has sustained the momentum he gained in December by playing the role of political strategist, world leader and, in the last week, the nation’s healer.

He’s avoided engaging Republicans in debate over the difficult choices ahead, allowing the opposition to come under pressure and preserving himself for the State of the Union Address on Jan. 25.

The chess moves began the day after Obama returned from a two-week vacation in Hawaii. White House press secretary Robert Gibbs announced he was leaving the day Republicans took control of the House.

The following day, Obama announced the arrival of a new White House chief of staff: Bill Daley, a centrist Democrat and CEO.

The changes appeared somewhat unscripted, but the White House had been some time in planning them. The effect of the timing was to keep Republicans from dominating the news cycle at a time when they expected to get their best, and easiest, coverage.

But the changes also kept the White House press corps from pressing the administration on the kinds of questions that Republicans began facing immediately after the New Year, such as what spending they intended to cut, and what they planned to do about the nation’s deficit and debt.

The personnel moves positioned Obama in the eyes of politicos as a political force, already maneuvering to set up his reelection team for the 2012 campaign. And in the eyes of the general public, the hiring of Daley moved him closer to the center.

Besides that, the White House successfully kept its head down, leaving Obama to assume his role as world leader. Prior to Saturday’s shooting in Arizona, this week was set to be a contrast between House Republicans holding a symbolic but toothless vote to repeal the president’s health-care law, and Obama hosting a series of heads of state for visits.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy came Monday, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri visited on Wednesday, and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari is set to arrive Friday.

Vice President Joe Biden made a surprise visit to Afghanistan and Iraq this week.

Then Chinese President Hu Jintao is set to come next Wednesday to the White House for a highly anticipated state visit.

The White House, and congressional Democrats, were prepared to start hearkening back to Obama’s words on Air Force One en route back to Washington about the new GOP majority: “They are going to play to their base for a certain period of time, but I’m pretty confident that they’re going to recognize that our job is to govern.”

Once through next week, Washington’s attention would turn to the upcoming State of the Union speech, and the White House could begin playing the expectations game without really saying much about the contents of the address.

But then a 22-year old gunman shot Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 18 others outside a Tucson super market, nearly killing the Democratic congresswoman and taking the lives of six others who were there to meet their representative on a Saturday morning.

The incident – as horrific and as unwelcome as it was – has had some political impact. One of the biggest is that it pushed the president forward into a difficult but broadly appealing role of national unifier.

Obama’s speech Wednesday in Tucson was widely acclaimed by conservatives as a master stroke, a moment of true political leadership. The president’s approval rating became higher than his disapproval rating this week for the first time since July, standing at 49 percent in favor and 46 percent against, according to the Real Clear Politics poll average.

The White House on Thursday was clearly viewing the speech as a potentially seminal moment for the nation, and by extension for Obama’s presidency.

“I think there are moments in our history — Oklahoma City, the Challenger accident, what happened in Arizona — that are important for the president to talk to the nation about, and to help be part of the process of celebration and healing. I think that’s how he approached – that’s how he approached this,” Gibbs told reporters.

Conservatives, when asked about the turn of events, downplayed the impact it will have on the inevitable showdowns between the president and Republicans over spending cuts, raising the debt limit and reforming entitlements. These are all things that have to happen to one degree or another. But each side has different visions for what those actions will look like.

Like the president, Republicans in Congress have attempted to make it through this prelude period in January without putting much skin in the game. They have tried to do this by subsisting mostly on the pomp of a new Congress and by putting forward a few PR-savvy measures, such as cutting congressional office budgets.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Virginia Republican, attempted to put some of the pressure for fiscal decisions on the president.

“Once we get to the State of the Union, I can tell you, I expect this president to put some action behind the words that he has been using. Number one, I am looking to see some significant spending cuts proposed by the president that we can work on together,” Cantor said the day before the GOP took control of the House.

But it is clear that Obama has been more successful so far than Republicans — who suffered a series of gaffes their first week before the Arizona shooting — in positioning himself for battles ahead.

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