Obama at bat as shutdown game creeps closer to three strikes

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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The immediate prospect of a government shutdown is cracking President Barack Obama’s claim of competence, spurring criticism of his management and boosting doubts about his reelection, say political advocates and analysts.

The new political pressure has forced the president this week to reverse his hands-off approach to the budget negotiations. This week, he’s hand-on, and is repeatedly inviting top Democrats and Republicans to the White House, while decrying GOP priorities as mere politics.

“If they can’t sort it out, then I want them back here tomorrow,” he told reporters April 5. “The only question is whether politics or ideology are going to get in the way of preventing a government shutdown.”

The next day, he was back at the press podium, saying, “folks are going to work through the night [and] in the morning I will check in with the respective staffs of the speaker and the majority leader, as well as my team here … we’re going to keep on pounding away at this thing because I’m absolutely convinced that we can get this done.”

GOP leaders criticize him for not seeking a budget deal since late last year, and especially since new GOP majority picked up the task of completing the unfinished 2011 budget in January. “I like the president personally … but the president didn’t lead,” House Speaker John Boehner said April 6.

“I do fault the president for allowing the country to be in this situation, because he could have had a budget passed … soon after the fiscal year passed, because the Democrats controlled the House and the Senate,” said Andrew Card, former chief of staff in George W. Bush’s White House.

But GOP leaders and their voters are already committed to vote against him in 2012. What’s more important are critical poll ratings that give him some of the blame for not concluding the budget deal, and the complaints from his base of progressive advocates who say he has not defeated GOP budget cuts.

In the last two days, his aides talked with friendly reporters at Politico and the Washington Post to defend his policies. “Despite his cool customer reputation, Obama has a distinct flair for the dramatic. Like the favorite in a prize fight, he enters the ring only after his opponent has shadow-boxed alone for a spell — hanging back until only he can finish the job,” according to an April 8 article in Politico. “But, in fact, the strategy all along was to enter the ring. The White House decided weeks ago to engage rather than fight Republicans over the budget. It was a tactical decision that reflected Obama’s leadership style. ‘With him, it’s all about the timing,” said an Obama ally close to the talks,’” said the article.

The Washington Post’s Dan Balz reported April 7 that Obama’s “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.”

White House officials are rallying Hill Democrats and affiliated to push back hard at GOP efforts to curb federal funding of progressive organizations, especially of cuts to funding for abortion-provider Planned Parenthood. Democrats are focusing on Planned Parenthood, said Rep. Kristi Noem, South Dakota Republican, because they “needed a new message … to damage the Republicans.”

“It’s not working,” Noem said, because “people understand we’re fighting over the spending cuts.”

Any shutdown will scratch Obama’s 2008 election-trail claim to be a cool and calculated manager, and that could turn away independent voters that provide the winning margin for every candidate. “The truth is [Americans] want government to work, but better than it has,” he said.

“I think the president believes he will gain the upper hand if there a shutdown, but I’m not sure he will be winner [and] I also not sure the Rs will be a winner.”

If the government does shut down, voters will blame both parties, and “will say ‘a pox on both your houses,’” Card said, because the shutdown “demonstrates that government is not working.”

Obama has tried to distance himself from that danger, and to pass the blame for any shutdown to legislators. “It would be inexcusable for us to not be able to take care of last year’s business — keep in mind we’re dealing with a budget that could have gotten done three months ago, could have gotten done two months ago, could have gotten done last month — when we are this close simply because of politics,” he said April 5.

“He’s struggling to be demonstrate to the American people that he’s a leader, when he hasn’t been a leader for the last nine months,” said Card.