Obama flips 2011 script in new debt ceiling fight with Republicans
By Amie Parnes - 10/06/13 06:00 AM ET
President Obama is taking a completely different tack in this year’s budget fight than in 2011, when talks with congressional leaders ended with him at a low point in his presidency.
Administration officials and White House allies argue Obama learned from his mistakes in that round, and that this underscores his decision to not negotiate with Republicans over raising the debt ceiling and ending the government shutdown.
“Nope, nope, nope,” one senior administration official said when asked if Obama would bend on the latest round of debt ceiling negotiations. “He’s not budging. Not this time.”
“We took John Boehner at his word that there was serious interest in negotiating a grand bargain and he wasn’t able to do any of that,” the senior official explained. “So let’s just say we learned from our mistakes.
The official also argued that Obama in 2011 thought Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) was capable of delivering his conference to a deal. Now he doesn’t.
“And the president especially learned the lesson of what John Boehner was capable of last time,” the official added. “He’s much more skeptical.”
Aides and Democrats close to the White House say this year’s dynamics are a far cry from 2011. Though Obama has stumbled in his second term — Gallup on Friday said his approval rating stood at an anemic 41 percent — the president doesn’t face the pressure of running for another term.
In 2011, Obama had one eye on the debt talks and another on his reelection, and this gave leverage to Republicans.
A key demand of the White House’s that year was that Republicans extend the debt ceiling to a point beyond the 2012 election so that it would not be an issue.
House Republicans were also at a stronger point in 2011. They were less than a year removed from their stunning electoral success in 2010, when they stripped the gavel from then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) hands and gained 63 seats in the House.
The House GOP lost seats in 2012 as Obama coasted to reelection, and Democrats have been happy to point out that their party won 1 million more votes than Republican House candidates that year, who retained their majority in part because of redrawn congressional district lines.
Those close to the White House who were involved in the first round of Obama's debt ceiling negotiations argue the difference between 2011 and 2013 stems more from the president's reelection than his need to get reelected two years ago.
“It’s less that he’s not running again and more that he was reelected,” said one former senior administration official, who was involved in the first debt ceiling talks. “I think the reelection put everything on the table, healthcare, government spending. The reelection was a referendum on the direction the country was going in.
“That’s not lost on the president,” the former official continued. “Not one bit.”
They also argue that experience, and not circumstances is the real reason why Obama was seemingly willing to make concessions in 2011, but isn’t this time.
“I think the biggest difference between him then and now is that he has some wisdom about what a negotiation would produce,” another former senior administration official said. “He’s not going to let those guys fool him again.”
Allies of Obama who grumbled that he gave away too much in 2011 are happy with the change, and say they believe the White House means it when it says the president won’t negotiate this time.
“Sometime between 2011 and now there’s been a clear message that we’re not going to see a replay of 2011,” one former senior administration official said.
The former official added that the 2011 playbook is “not acceptable” to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and that Obama has reached the same conclusion as well.
“I think he realized he’d have a lot harder time selling it to Harry Reid than he did in 2011,” the former official said.
Republicans have blasted Obama for refusing to negotiate, and Republican strategist Ron Bonjean said Obama risks “painting himself into a corner and overplaying his hand by not really sitting down with Speaker Boehner and hammering out a deal.
“When Democrats lead the White House and Senate, Obama will damage the image of his party if he simply refuses to run the country,” Bonjean said. He predicted that the “pressure will mount on Obama to negotiate with Republicans if the government is closed and until the debt ceiling is lifted.”
This is particularly true, Bonjean suggested, now that the GOP message seems to be “changing away from Obamacare to a broader discussion over deficit reduction on the debt ceiling.”
Also, while Obama doesn’t have to worry about an election, he must contend with his legacy, especially with few tangible deliverables in his second term.
The White House believes Republicans will be blamed for the shutdown and a default, if that happens. But Obama would then become the first president to have a default on his watch.
Still, observers close to the White House say the president—who has expressed downright exasperation at the stalemate-- feels like he’s in the right on this fight. And they can see it more and more with each passing day of the government shutdown and as the debt ceiling looms.
“There’s no indignation like righteous indignation and I think he feels completely righteously indignant,” one former senior administration official said. “He’s got that in spades right now.”