Obama looks to retain upper hand as fiscal talks resume in Washington

President Obama will strive to retain the political upper hand in negotiations over deficit reduction when he returns to Washington Thursday morning.

Obama had been in Hawaii with his family since Saturday but is scheduled to arrive back at the White House just before noon as the nation approaches the year-end fiscal cliff.

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There is little sign, at least in public, that Republican leaders in Congress are in meaningful communication with the upper reaches of the administration. A spokesman for Speaker John Boehner (Ohio) acknowledged that key GOP figures were in phone contact with each other over the issue, but described the conversations as “routine.”

Administration sources say that most of their focus for the moment is on staff-level discussions with Senate Democrats. Chances of a plan emerging from the House of Representatives withered when Boehner lacked the political strength to bring his “Plan B” proposal to a vote late last week.

Given the apparent inactivity, Obama is open to the accusation that his return from Hawaii is a matter of optics rather than substance.

“I think Obama wants to avoid any perception that he isn’t doing everything he can to cut a deal,” said Tobe Berkovitz, a Boston University professor who specializes in political communications. “It does not look good to be out there on the golf course or surfing when the average American is about to watch their financial status go down the drain.”

But Obama’s return, Berkovitz added, “is substantive in ways, too. He now has control of the news agenda and he can take charge of direct negotiations.”

Whatever happens — or doesn’t happen — soon after the president’s return, Democrats believe that he would be politically negligent not to protect his current tactical advantage.

A battery of opinion polls has shown that the public is much more inclined to blame Republicans than Democrats for a fall over the fiscal cliff, a combination of automatic spending cuts and tax hikes set to hit in January.

A Gallup poll released Wednesday, conducted on Dec. 21 and 22, underlined this point. It found that 54 percent of Americans approved of Obama’s handling of the negotiations, a rise of 6 percentage points from a week previously.

By contrast, only 26 percent of Americans pronounced themselves happy with how Boehner or “Republican leaders in Congress” were handling the talks. That result represented a rise of a single point for Boehner and a fall of 3 points for the GOP leadership since the prior week’s polling.

A recent CNN poll suggested the difference between the two sides was somewhat narrower, but still gave Obama a healthy advantage. It suggested that 48 percent of the public would hold Republicans in Congress culpable for a failure to reach a deal, against 37 percent who would apportion blame to Obama.

Results like that put a spring in Democrats’ collective step. But Republican strategists argue that public opinion can be volatile. They also suggest that Obama has his own imperatives for coming to a deal.

“Absolutely, he has the upper hand,” GOP strategist Ford O’Connell admitted. “But the White House wants to get its agenda through before 2014. Now there is some concern that, if they go over the cliff, that complicates everything else: gun control, immigration, regulations. They want to make sure this deal goes through.”

Another GOP consultant, Matt Mackowiak, argued that this downside for Obama was more concrete, and therefore more important, than the negative consequences that would face Republicans if talks fell apart.

“What do the Republicans lose? They get blamed and people will say they seem like they’re not willing to compromise,” he said. But, pointing to the likelihood of markets “tanking” on the failure to reach a deal — and the same legislative logjam for Democrats to which O’Connell alluded — he added: “I think we have a more specific idea of what Obama loses.”

Another ingredient was added to the mix Wednesday when Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner sent an open letter to Congress noting that the country is set to hit the national debt limit on Dec. 31.

Geithner stated in the letter that the Treasury would “shortly begin taking certain extraordinary measures” that would create some leeway, amounting to about $200 billion. But he added a note of caution.

“Under normal circumstances, that amount of headroom would last approximately two months,” he wrote. “However, given the significant uncertainty that now exists with regard to unresolved tax and spending policies for 2013, it is not possible to predict the effective duration of these measures.”

Still, even as the pressure mounts, independent observers argue that Obama still holds a stronger hand than his opponents, whatever the next few weeks bring.

“Obama basically has a full house and Boehner is trying to draw an inside straight with two cards,” said Berkovitz. “When he says he wants to fly right back, what he’s doing is maintaining his advantage.”


—Peter Schroeder contributed.