President Obama has had a tough year. He failed to pass gun legislation. Plans for an immigration overhaul have stalled in the House. He barely escaped what would have been a humiliating rejection by Congress on his plan to strike Syria.
Just this week, his own Democrats forced Larry Summers, the president’s first choice to head the Federal Reserve, to withdraw.
Former Clinton White House aide Bill Galston says all these issues have weakened the unity of the president’s coalition.
“It’s not a breach, but there has been some real tension there,” he says, “and that’s something that neither the president nor congressional Democrats can afford as the budget battle intensifies.”
Obama is now facing showdowns with the Republicans over a potential government shutdown and a default on the nation’s debt. On Friday, the House voted to fund government operations through mid-December, while also defunding the president’s signature health care law — a position that’s bound to fail in the Senate.
As these fiscal battles proceed, Republicans have been emboldened by the president’s recent troubles, says former GOP leadership aide Ron Bonjean.
“The joke among Republicans is that maybe Vladimir Putin has a plan for President Obama to follow in order to get out of the debt ceiling fight,” Bonjean says. “They feel that they may be able to outnegotiate the president or pressure him enough into a deal because his hand has been weakened on Syria.”
But Democrats say if Republicans proceed under that assumption, they’ll do so at their peril. If Putin did, in fact, rescue the president on Syria with a last-minute diplomatic gambit, now Democrats say the president is being helped by his chief domestic adversary, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.
Boehner has been unable to dissuade his Tea Party caucus from threatening to shut down the government or default on the debt unless the president’s health law is defunded or delayed. The Republican chaos has helped Democrats unite behind the president, says Jim Manley, a former top aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
“[Obama] had some missteps within the caucus,” Manley says, but “now that he has those situations behind him … he can turn his attention to the debt limit and the spending issues.”
Manley says the president will be well-positioned to take on Republicans in those fiscal fights, “if only because … their policies are so out of the mainstream that they won’t enjoy any support on the Hill and/or with the American people.”
The plan to bomb Syria was extremely unpopular. But on budget issues, the president is on firmer footing with the public, who may not like Obamacare but don’t want it repealed or defunded.
So, in the House at least, Republicans are making demands the president cannot and will not meet.
“You have never seen, in the history of the United States, the debt ceiling or the threat of not raising the debt ceiling being used to extort a president or a governing party, and trying to force issues that have nothing to do with the budget and have nothing to do with the debt,” Obama has said.
White House officials say Democrats will always have internal divisions, but right now they are nothing compared with the fights inside the GOP.
“There is essentially a civil war brimming in the Republican Party right now,” says Dan Pfeiffer, the president’s senior adviser.
Pfeiffer points to open warfare between Tea Party conservatives and moderates, and even between House and Senate conservatives, as Republicans struggle to settle on a viable budget strategy.
“The important thing is, as we head into these budget battles this fall, Democrats … are in lock-step about the way to approach this,” he says, “which is that we are not going to negotiate on the debt ceiling — we’re not going to allow the full faith and credit of the United States to be held hostage by the Republicans, who want to … deny health insurance to millions of Americans. We’re in lock-step and they’re divided, so I feel pretty good about that.”
Despite the setbacks of the spring and summer, the Obama team is counting on the latent power of the presidency — one of the most resilient institutions in American life.
Unlike on Syria, Obama seems to have a budget strategy. He’s hanging tough on his two red lines: no negotiations on the debt ceiling and no changes to Obamacare.
The president is willing for now to let the Republicans flirt with the unpopular and dangerous possibilities of a government shutdown and a debt default. It’s a high-stakes game of chicken, and one where the White House feels confident it has the upper hand.