New York Times
POSTED: 1:40 a.m. HST, Apr 10, 2011
WASHINGTON >> President Barack Obama opened the week by calling on Democrats to embrace his re-election campaign. He closed it by praising Republicans for forging a compromise to cut spending this year and avert a government shutdown.
The juxtaposition made clearer than ever the more centrist governing style Obama has adopted since his party’s big losses in November and his recapture-the-middle strategy for winning a second term.
But in agreeing Friday night to what he called the largest annual spending cut in the nation’s history, the president further decoupled himself from his party in Congress, exacerbating concerns among some Democrats about whether he is really one of them and is willing to spend political capital to defend their principles on bigger battles ahead.
The question of where Obama’s bottom line is on Democratic priorities will be that much more urgent to his party as House Republicans, energized by their success in resetting the terms of the debate in Washington, press an aggressive conservative agenda in the coming months that includes deeper spending cuts and a fundamental reshaping of the Medicare and Medicaid programs.
The president may be viewed as liberal by some of his conservative critics, but to the traditional base of the Democratic Party, he is often seen as not liberal enough. As details of the budget agreement came to light on Saturday, the first criticism came from the left, with Rep. Jesse L. Jackson Jr., D-Ill., accusing the president of “keeping the government open on the backs of the poor and disenfranchised.”
Even before the battle over this year’s budget, many liberals were concerned that Obama’s sponsorship of a fiscal commission that recommended changes to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid suggested a willingness on his part to go further than they would like in rethinking the social welfare system.
David Plouffe, a senior adviser to the president, dismissed the criticism and urged Democrats to “consume the details of this.”
“The easy thing to do is to go in your corner and throw political spitballs,” Plouffe said in an interview Saturday. “There are going to be plenty of times when you won’t be able to reach common ground and you have to be in pugilistic mode, but you can’t view any kind of agreement with the other side as weakness.”
The White House is hoping voters will view compromising and trying to reach consensus as signs of mature leadership in a partisan environment, not weakness — the attribute Republicans lawmakers and potential presidential candidates are most frequently trying to attach to Obama.
After Republicans found success casting Obama as a reflexive liberal intent on expanding the reach of government, the president has sought to reintroduce himself as a pragmatic leader more attuned to the political center than to the ideologies of left or right. He has talked about this brand of politics for years, but now his challenge is to employ it.
In his handling of the closing stages of the budget negotiations, he portrayed himself more as a mediator urging the two parties to do their jobs than as another Democrat at the table. As he did in December in agreeing to extend the Bush tax cuts in return for some economic stimulus measures, he proved willing to trade some of his party’s priorities in order to secure others.
Polls regularly suggest that the independent and moderate voters — particularly women — who abandoned Democrats in 2010 prefer compromise to partisan feuding, and in that sense Obama has an opportunity to win back an important segment of the coalition that sent him to the White House.
“I would not have made these cuts in better circumstances,” Obama said Saturday in his weekly radio and Internet address. “But we also prevented this important debate from being overtaken by politics and unrelated disagreements on social issues.”
The agreement the president reached with Speaker John A. Boehner and Sen. Harry Reid, the majority leader, represented one of the most dramatic moments of his presidency and a sharp break from the historical parallel of the 1995 showdown between President Bill Clinton and Speaker Newt Gingrich. Unlike their predecessors, Obama and Boehner decided that the peril of allowing a government shutdown — and all its accompanying political and economic fallout — was too great not to agree on middle ground.
The announcement carried all the cornerstones of a campaign theme: Obama brings people together and rises above politics at a moment when Americans face all manner of challenges. Yet the elements of the deal also underscore the tensions alive in the Obama coalition.
The president’s advisers argued that the broad coalition of supporters who gave Obama 53 percent of the popular vote and 365 electoral votes in 2008 never completely matched up with the traditional Democratic base. Heading into his re-election campaign and big legislative battles centering on the 2012 budget and the need to raise the federal debt ceiling, he is now well positioned to appeal to the political center even as his allies make the case that the current Republican Party is so extreme that liberals will ultimately get behind him as the best alternative.
Obama not only helped avoid the first government shutdown in 15 years, but also pressured Republicans to remove provisions intended to restrict financing for Planned Parenthood and to limit environmental regulations. In doing so, he assumed the role of a level-headed referee, rising above the squabbling to take ownership of a solution rather than a problem.
“He’s the undisputed grownup in the group,” said Jim Jordan, a Democratic strategist who has managed Senate and presidential campaigns across the country. “Presidents almost always compare well against Congress.”
The budget showdown, which inched perilously close to an actual shutdown, drew attention to the ways the president’s leadership style had evolved from the early days when he often seemed deeply involved in legislative negotiations, focusing as much on details as on building a broad narrative case for his presidency. In this case, he increased his direct involvement in the negotiations in the final days, but for months let his advisers handle the details.
When an agreement was finally reached late Friday evening, Obama did not immediately rush to the cameras that had been waiting for hours. He did not proceed until Boehner had consulted Republican members, fearful that trumpeting the fragile deal from the White House could threaten it.
While Reid, Boehner and their allies traded incendiary charges throughout the final stages of the impasse — with each side racing to frame the debate — the president kept a distance. He prodded both sides in late-night appearances in the White House briefing room, never passing on the chance to seize the bully pulpit, but he did not publicly engage in the back-and-forth sniping that characterized the final days of the Congressional negotiations.
His message throughout the process was focused on the need to get results — an approach that seems to have induced some concern among Republicans that Obama has regained his political footing.
Karl Rove, the political strategist to President George W. Bush, reminded Republicans in his weekly newsletter of how Clinton benefited politically from the government shutdown on his watch, particularly from voters who perceived Clinton as a strong leader. He suggested that the same could happen to Obama.
“Republicans should be careful,” Rove said, “to not let him recover as he gears up for his 2012 re-election campaign.”