Government shutdown: White House: It’s all about John Boehner
By: Edward-Isaac Dovere
October 4, 2013 11:56 AM EDT
President Barack Obama thinks the American people have had enough of House Speaker John Boehner. He certainly has.
For the first time in a long time, Obama sounds like he’s captured public opinion in his fight against Congress. So instead of trying to convince people he’s right, the president is projecting the sense people already agree with him that the House GOP has gone too far.
Not so subtly, Obama is leading an effort to direct that into a conversation that’s all about Boehner. The speaker’s the one who had the power to shut the government down, Obama and his aides say, and he’s the one who could just as easily toss the opposition to Obamacare, re-open the government and avoid default.
“The only thing that is keeping the government shut down is that Speaker John Boehner won’t even let the bill get a yes or no vote because he doesn’t want to anger the extremists in his party,” Obama said at a Maryland construction company Thursday.
The speaker’s clearly been weakened internally and in public opinion — which Obama seems eager to exploit.
A CBS News poll conducted after Monday’s deadline showed 72 percent of people opposed to the shutdown, and 44 percent of people blaming Republican. To Obama, those are the sort of numbers that have created an opening to move from warning about the shutdown to complaining about the “Republican shutdown” to, on Thursday, the “reckless and damaging Republican shutdown.”
The Boehner play is the latest in a shifting strategy from the White House — just a week ago, the West Wing were wondering whether Boehner still had enough sway in his conference to even be the one to negotiate with, or whether they’d have to go somewhere else.
But if Obama’s right in trying to break Boehner, he may just get the larger shift in dynamic he’s been looking for, ever since the Obamacare argument first went off the rails in the 2009 town hall tea party explosion. If he’s wrong, he risks seeming like he’s gone too personal and too political, seeming like he’s more interested in his own ends than ending the budget crisis, content to gamble the global economy on scoring a few more points.
“It makes sense to create some kind of dynamic where the other guy has to produce,” said former Bill Clinton White House press secretary Mike McCurry.
There are a lot of differences between the 1996 and 2013 shutdowns, McCurry said, not the least of which is that Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich talked nightly, a personal relationship far beyond what’s ever existed between Obama and Boehner. Even with that, the Clinton operation focused on Gingrich as an almost mythic figure whom the president was trying to defeat. But unlike Gingrich, whom they always comfortable could speak on behalf of his conference, McCurry said, “this poor guy Boehner can’t deliver squat.”
Boehner’s office shrugged at this latest line out of the White House, saying that if anything, it proves how little Obama understands about how to actually get things done.
“No one in Washington has thicker skin than John Boehner,” said Boehner spokesman Brendan Buck. “The White House hasn’t a learned a thing over the last three years if they think this pettiness is going to get them anywhere. The speaker is going to do the right things for the right reasons, just as he’s always done.”
Ironically, in picking the speaker as his new pressure point, Obama seems to be relying on the idea that Boehner wants to negotiate, as goes what’s become accepted as convention wisdom in Washington: Boehner does not want the shutdown, he knows the position he’s taken to defund Obamacare is hopeless and he’s looking for a way to strike a deal that would get out of this situation, so long as it doesn’t cost him his job.
The predictably unproductive hour-long meeting with congressional leaders Wednesday night didn’t help. Stuck in a shutdown and caught for three years in the larger situation that brought things to this point, Obama on Thursday barely bothered with the feint of outreach.
On immigration and gun control, the White House also saw broad public support for the president’s positions, but a failure to generate much action in Congress. The budget fight, though, is one that the White House has presented as a much simpler proposition — Congress hasn’t acted — and one that effects the whole population.
Thursday, the president gleefully mocked Republicans as more than just reckless, but hapless, reading out quotes and ruefully chuckling how little thought he said went in to strategizing over the shutdown — or keeping their conference united about what to do next.
“They got exactly what they wanted. Now they’re trying to figure out how they get out of it,” Obama said, of Republicans who’d cheering the idea of closing the government.
“Since they’ve taken over the House of Representatives, we’ve had one of these crises every three months. Have you noticed that?” he added later, catching a laugh in his throat.
Going after Boehner is “the only path available to them,” said Matt Bennett, a vice president at Third Way who worked in the Clinton White House during the last shutdown. “Obviously it’s the House that is the problem. He is the speaker of the House. But he is also someone who everyone in Washington understands to be a reasonable guy. … The presumption is that he wants to do the right thing.”
Eventually, Obama will need to find a deal that Boehner can accept without inviting a coup, which, given any of the possible scenarios to replace him, would likely be even more of a problem for the White House than the speaker himself. To get even to that point, the president will need to keep from doing too much to aggravate what’s already a very bad personal relationship between the two of them so that Boehner doesn’t resist just to spite him.
“They need to manage those risks,” Bennett said, adding, “the idea that Boehner can get his back up — how much higher can his back really get?”
To help increase the pressure on Boehner, Obama’s been slowly ratcheting up the panic. After several overreach messaging flops in warning of dire consequences of the fiscal cliff and the sequester cuts, the White House has taken a more cautious approach in talking about the pain of the shutdown, and even about a debt limit default — despite the new report from Treasury Secretary Jack Lew out Thursday laying out data that this could disembowel the economy worse than the Great Depression.
Not until Monday afternoon, when the shutdown was already a foregone conclusion, did Obama say anything specific about what effects it would have, and even then, didn’t say much. He didn’t read off statistics of cutbacks at military bases. He didn’t march out poor mothers and their babies who’ve been left waiting on their WIC vouchers.
Slowly, Obama’s gone further. The standoff makes a default so much more likely this time, Obama told CNBC Wednesday, that Wall Street “should be concerned.”
Thursday, he warned people just how much worse things could get if he can’t break the resolve of Boehner and the GOP conference to start voting.
“In a government shutdown, Social Security checks still go out on time. In an economic shutdown, if we don’t raise the debt ceiling, they don’t go out on time,” he said. “In a government shutdown, disability benefits still arrive on time. In an economic shutdown, they don’t.”
For now, Obama acknowledged, most people have just been watching the show. But Obama said they should start realizing that they’re going to feel a much deeper pain if the shutdown continues.
“In a government shutdown, millions of Americans — not just federal workers — everybody faces real economic hardship. In an economic shutdown, falling pensions and home values, and rising interest rates on things like mortgages and student loans, all those things risk putting us back into a bad recession, which will affect this company and those workers and all of you,” he said.
The shutdown looks likely to continue through the weekend, and so will the White House’s assault. Lew is scheduled to make the administration’s case on all five Sunday shows, and Obama canceled a scheduled trip to Asia late Thursday, freeing him to continue leading the charge himself.