POLITICS: PennAve

Obama sticking with hands-off approach in future fiscal fights

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Politics,White House,Congress,Barack Obama,Debt Ceiling,PennAve,Susan Crabtree,Budgets and Deficits,Government Shutdown

President Obama spent most of this week on the sidelines, laying low as House Republicans imploded and Senate leaders crafted a deal to reopen the government and avoid a default.

The president only emerged after passage of the bill was all but certain to congratulate members for ending the shutdown and raising the debt limit, avoiding what he argued would have been an economic catastrophe.

On Thursday, hours after signing the bill to end the 16-day shutdown, a stern Obama scolded Republicans, whom he said tried to “break” the federal government.

The funding and debt limit bill reopened the government through Jan. 15 and extended the nation’s borrowing authority to Feb. 7, putting an end to a bitter battle between the president and conservative Republicans who were intent on blocking Obamacare.

“These last few weeks have inflicted completely unnecessary damage on our economy,” Obama said. “The American people’s frustration with what goes on in this town has never been higher. How business is done in this town has to change.”

The president directed most of his comments at Republican lawmakers, but didn't say how he planned to change the dynamic in Washington, one of his original 2008 campaign promises.

The unusually low-profile role Obama played in a budget fight that consumed Washington for more than two weeks didn't go unnoticed.

Republicans were quick to criticize the president, saying that he should have been more involved in negotiations. And some Democrats say in the next budget fight, Obama will need to take a more active role to prevent another shutdown and avert default.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who has bucked his party to work with the White House on other issues, accused Obama of being “AWOL” during the recent fiscal fight and of failing to take the lead in working with lawmakers eager to address long-term spending problems and entitlement and tax reforms.

Graham acknowledged that House Republicans “completely overplayed their hand,” but said there's plenty of blame to go around.

“[The deal] avoids complete disaster, Obama was AWOL during the time we needed him the most, Democrats moved the goal posts and we ended up with a very strange strategy,” he said. “But if you liked this movie there's a sequel in the making coming out in January.”

Democrats who have spent their careers in Washington also suggest that Obama needs to spend more time engaging with Congress to avoid a repeat of the fiscal fight.

“We can govern by either leadership or crisis,” Leon Panetta, a former Democratic congressman who also served Obama as CIA director and Defense secretary, said at a breakfast with reporters on Monday. “If leadership is not there, then we govern by crisis.”

“You have to engage in the process,” Panetta, who has seen nine presidents come and go, continued. “This is a town where it's not enough to feel you have the right answers. You've got to roll up your sleeves and you've got to fully engage in the process.”

There is little sign from the White House though that Obama will abandon his hands-off approach during the next fiscal battle.

The president’s supporters also note that he is not up for reelection and that the wise move is for him to allow House Republicans to make their own missteps, especially with the critical 2014 midterm elections around the corner.

But time is also running out on the president's second-term and a protect-your-own strategy does nothing to solve the nation's long-term problems and fulfill his campaign promises to change Washington.

During a Thursday press briefing, reporters pressed White House press secretary Jay Carney on whether Obama would take a more direct role in the next round of budget fights.

Carney said he thought Congress should get back to its role of funding the government without threatening shutdowns but gave no indication that the president would step in and help forge the next deal.

“Our engagement with that process will be what it has traditionally been, which is to provide technical assistance, to provide insight into the president's views on matters,” he said. “But we certainly hope, as the president made clear earlier, that it is a success.”

When asked what lessons Obama learned from the government shutdown, Carney fell back on the White House's constant refrain over the last several weeks.

“The lesson the president has learned throughout this process is that the value of the full faith and credit of the United States is so high that we cannot mess around with it,” he said.

Carney said Obama never faltered in his position that Congress can't ask for anything in return for doing its job and keeping the government open and he will maintain that stance in the budget battles ahead.

After such a bruising fight, few Republicans though say they are willing to shut down the government again to extract spending cuts or change Obamacare.

“There's no education in the second kick of the mule,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told the Hill newspaper Thursday.

Obama on Thursday tried to move ahead from the recent budget showdown.

The president has said his top priority is immigration reform, an issue that is already on life support in hyper-partisan Washington. In his remarks Thursday, he added that he also expects Congress to move quickly on passing a budget and the farm bill.

The president also tried to shape the next budget debate, downplaying GOP concerns about the $16 trillion federal debt. Republicans say the debt — now at 73 percent of the economy's annual output, according to the Congressional Budget Office — is too high and imposes impossible burdens for future generations.

“The issue is not growth versus fiscal responsibility,” Obama said. “We need both. And remember, the deficit is getting smaller, not bigger.”

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