Obama As Budget Referee: It’s a No-Win Situation

April 8, 2011 7:41 p.m.

Now that the budget hijinks have come to a close and Washington has oh-so-narrowly averted a government shutdown, let the blame game begin.

Such high stakes political negotiations always involve some level of political fallout. As President Obama likes to say, no one ever gets 100 percent of what they want in a negotiation, and there’s always room to complain. Democrats will no doubt have plenty to complain about when the finer details of Friday’s deal reach the light of day.

Democrats managed to jettison the policy rider aimed at defunding Planned Parenthood, but they also caved to $6 billion more in overall spending cuts than they previously said they would tolerate. And the final stop-gap spending bill included language preventing D.C. from using tax dollars for abortions.So far, the media spotlight has focused most intensely on Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and his high stakes balancing act of trying to please his Tea Party base and corral his unruly conference without angering coveted independent swing voters who decide elections and preferred a deal over a government shutdown. In the end, however, Boehner kept his poker face all week and with $39 billion as the final figure, ended up surprisingly close to his $40 million spending target.

President Obama, who launched his re-election campaign earlier this week, will face some serous fallout. His liberal base, which is still smarting from the lame-duck tax cut deal Obama struck with Republicans in December, will inevitably say he gave up too much ground in reaching a deal and kept his hands too clean in the process — wanting to appear as the “grown-up” and the “referee” — all the while bemoaning being forced into that position by recalcitrant Congressional leaders.

“This feels an awful lot like the tax cut deal,” Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-NY) tweeted near midnight Friday. “I gotta bad feeling.”

In fact, in his remarks announcing the deal Obama boasted about achieving the biggest annual spending cut in history, while referencing the tax-cut deal he struck with Republicans in December.

“A few months ago, we were able to sign a tax cut for the middle class … Now the same cooperation will make possible the biggest annual spending cut in history,” he said.

Some Democrats, especially those in the Senate likely were bristling at those words. For weeks, Senate Democrats have been practically begging and pleading for President Obama to get in the game and directly engage in budget talks — to come to their aid and leverage the full weight of his bully pulpit to prevent Republicans from getting the upper-hand.

“The President needs to play a much greater role in these negotiations,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) told TPM in early March. “The President doesn’t want to engage in this fight because it’s really, really hard, because we’re up against a government shutdown and we can’t keep funding the government with these stop-gap measures.”

When asked what Feinstein thought would help Democrats gain an upper hand she was blunt: “Presidential leadership.”

Inevitably, some will complain the President waited too long to provide it, and Democrats could have given up far less if Obama had given ore facetime early on. The White House insists that Obama has had plenty of skin in the game all along — that senior aides have been intimately involved for months.

“The Administration has played an active role from the start of these CR negotiations, with several of the President’s most senior advisors speaking on a daily basis with key members of congress,” White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki told TPM. “Since late February, there have been constant discussions with leaders and appropriators by the Vice President, Jack Lew, Rob Nabors, and others on behalf of the President. And the President himself has had close to ten discussions with members of Congress over the past several weeks about this.”

Office of Management Director Jack Lew, White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley and Rob Nabors, director of White House legislative affairs, have been involved in the vast majority of the private negotiations between Congressional Republicans and Democrats over spending cuts since the end of February, according to an administration official’s detailed run-down of significant meetings.

But it wasn’t until crunch-time, when the government shutdown became more than just a thinly veiled threat, that Obama stepped in himself to help broker the deal. This week the President stepped directly into the talks, holding a meeting a day at the White House and two meetings on Thursday as Congressional leaders careened toward a government shutdown.

On Friday night Boehner’s office released a photo of the Speaker on the phone with Obama negotiating with the government shutdown deadline looming just hours away.

In waiting until the 11th hour to act as referee, Obama cast himself as the closer, the grown-up in the room who is not interested in flinging mud but instead reaching consensus and middle ground — and most of all — averting a government shutdown. And his advisers are counting on that leadership to transcend partisan politics and appeal to the average American fed up with the ways of Washington.

“In the final hours, leaders in both parties reached an agreement that allowed families to get the mortgage they applied for…and hundreds of thousands of people to show up to work Monday and get their paycheck on time, including our military,” Obama said.

Yet, if Boehner was the happy warrior, as he told reporters with a smile Friday, Obama was a reluctant one. Throughout the week, Obama groused about his job as “referee” in talks between Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill, but also has acquiesced to playing the role of disappointed parent, the “grown-up” in the room, as he likes to say.

Earlier this week, he scolded Republicans and Democrats for not being able to play nicely and work things out themselves, and Thursday night he instructed Boehner and Reid to work through the night and get back to him on the morning on any progress.

Obama now gets to take credit for helping to avert a crisis, but the measure funding government for the rest of the year makes deep cuts in some of liberals’ most beloved spending programs and exacts $6 billion in cuts than Senate Democrats said they would tolerate only days earlier. The recriminations on those issues will no doubt continue for weeks.

At the same time, Obama’s leading role in achieving a compromise would likely win over a large swath of independent voters — who desperately wanted the partisan bickering in Washington to end and preferred an imperfect deal rather than allow the government to shutdown, according to a recent national opinion survey by the Pew Research Center.

Steve Elmendorf, who served as as senior adviser to then-House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt (D-MO) during the shutdown of 1995, predicts the public will blame Congress — and Republicans in particular — rather than Obama.

The President “communicates with the American people more than Congress does — he speaks with one voice while Congress speaks with many voices,” Eldmendorf argued.

Besides, Obama has better approval ratings than Congress does right now — and if he appears to be the one putting politics aside to bridge the partisan divide, he will win even more affection from coveted swing voters, Elmendorf said.

As leaders, Obama and Boehner will both catch heat from their base about any deal, just like they did after December’s tax deal. After the dust settled on the tax deal, however, Obama’s popularity went up.

“Both sides have to worry about the swing voter,” Elmendorf said. “The Tea Party is noisy but they don’t represent a majority of Americans.”

But John Feehery, a longtime GOP adviser who worked for Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL) argues that Obama has the most to lose in a government shutdown scenario because most Americans don’t know who Boehner is, he’s not a polarizing figure like former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA), and not really a household name — at least not yet.

“Everybody loses in the shutdown,” Feehery said. “Because it shows that government is not working. But it’s really good for people who aren’t in power…whoever is running against Barack Obama. I don’t think Obama is going to win this.”

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