President Obama was noticeably absent last Friday amid the dueling
GOP and Democratic press conferences on a possible government shutdown.
That was no accident.
“Don’t say anything inflammatory. Don’t say anything that makes it harder to get a deal,” was the president’s order Friday morning, officials said.
The order says much about a president who values getting a deal more than anything else.
Even as the White House was being blasted by all sides, including by lawmakers who accused the president of failing to demonstrate leadership, Obama ordered his staff to keep their heads down to preserve a possible deal with a Republican Speaker walking a tightrope in his own conference.
And the president got one, just as he did on healthcare and last December’s tax-cut compromise.
For a sitting president, a reelection campaign centers around a checklist. The stump speech is essentially a list the president can take to the American people and say: “This is what I have done.”
Obama’s list keeps getting longer, and White House officials say this is all proof the administration needs to show voters that Obama is not the aloof or AWOL president Republican critics see, but a leader facing the country’s key issues head on.
The fight over spending illustrates Obama’s strategy.
For weeks, Obama and press secretary Jay Carney were given repeated opportunities to join Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) in trying to drive a wedge between Boehner and his conservative “Tea Party” freshman class.
It never happened. Carney in particular passed on opportunities to question whether Boehner could deliver on what he was promising, given the potential for revolt within his own caucus.
Joining Reid’s attack, officials said, would have only jeopardized the deal, which to this White House is what matters.
The White House hopes its checklist of deals will be particularly appealing to independent voters whom Obama will need to win a second term. Polling suggests independents soured on Obama during his first two years in office, but this group of voters is generally viewed as more interested than are Democrats and Republicans in seeing the two parties work together to find results.
Still, there is significant risk to the White House strategy.
Critics on the left have come to believe that Obama, like his former chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, cares far more about getting something done than getting something pure. While Obama is happy to embrace that label, it has won him criticism from liberals like Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), who this week said the president should start acting more like a Democrat.
The approach also makes Obama an easier target for Republicans, who have spent the days following the budget deal blasting Obama as detached, absent from the key debates of the day and following Boehner’s leadership.
Early polling suggests a mixed result for Obama.
While the White House is finding some success in portraying the president as above the partisan fray, they also point to the dangers for Obama.
A CNN poll from last weekend showed that 54 percent of respondents thought Obama handled the battle over spending well. A Washington Post survey, however, showed that 72 percent of respondents said Obama was partially to blame for the near-shutdown.
The stakes are about to rise as Obama gets ready to negotiate the terms for raising the nation’s $14.3 trillion debt ceiling. Republicans are demanding steep spending cuts as their price for agreeing to raise the ceiling. As in the fight over preventing a shutdown, there are risks for both sides.
If Obama can add the debt ceiling to his list of accomplishments, the next fight will be about spending in 2012 and beyond. This battle is expected to introduce debates over entitlement reforms, with Obama expected to give a sense of his opening position in a speech on Wednesday.
If the last two-plus years are any guide, the president will find a way to bend just enough that he gets the deal. And like he did with the budget battle, Obama will quietly add another item to his list of results even as Republicans claim victory.
So while Republicans will spend the next year and a half blasting Obama as AWOL, White House officials say the president will continue to speak softly and carry a big checklist of accomplishments.
And they hope that voters will join them in believing that sometimes a quiet day is a mark of leadership.
Youngman is the White House correspondent for The Hill.