Topics: Obamacare

Obama's tone in government shutdown could damage political brand

By |
Politics,White House,Brian Hughes,Barack Obama,Obamacare,Debt Ceiling,PennAve,Government Shutdown

President Obama's pledge to transform Washington's divisive politics seems like a distant memory during the bitter fight over the federal government shutdown.

Obama, who campaigned on a vow to “fundamentally change how Washington works,” has fully embraced the trench-warfare mentality he once dismissed.

A pledge to rise above the political fray has been replaced by a willingness to get down in the mud.

With the government shutdown in its second week, Obama and his surrogates have compared Republicans to suicide bombers, hostage takers and arsonists.

And the president's tactics have mirrored that harsh rhetoric, as he refuses to negotiate in the face of both a shutdown and possible default if the debt ceiling is not raised by Oct. 17.

The White House approach received new scrutiny after the Wall Street Journal quoted a senior administration official who said: “We are winning. ... It doesn't really matter to us" how long the shutdown lasts, adding, “what matters is the end result."

That tone emboldened progressives but also turned off some Obama supporters who have watched the once-transformative political figure push an us-versus-them stance in the nation’s capital.

“That was just a terrible quote,” a former senior Obama administration official said of the “winning” remark. “I get where such a mindset is coming from — Republicans are embracing an unprecedented obstructionism — but to your average person, such language is totally off-putting.”

The White House moved quickly to disavow the remark, with Obama saying that “nobody is winning” when American families are suffering during the shutdown. But the president added that he would not negotiate with "a gun held to the head of the American people."

In many ways, Obama is treating these fiscal feuds the same way he approached his re-election campaign.

The president framed Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney as out of touch with the concerns of everyday Americans, essentially making the contest as much a referendum on the challenger as on his own policies.

Obama is now intent on painting Republican lawmakers as a rigid band of obstructionists beholden to the far-right wing of their party.

To some, that strategy is a cynical move that dilutes Obama’s greatest asset: his likability.

“Obama might win -- he has the bigger megaphone,” said Matt Schlapp, former White House political director for President George W. Bush, of the fiscal standoff. “But he has resisted the opportunity to be the bigger man and be a leader. The American people expect a certain amount of dignity from the White House.”

Administration officials counter that the GOP stance on government spending and the debt limit is so irresponsible and potentially cataclysmic, they have no choice but to hammer Republicans.

Such a strategy is not without risks for the White House.

A recent Gallup daily tracking poll gave Obama his lowest approval rating in two months, with just 41 percent of Americans endorsing the president’s job performance.

The hard-line stance could also reinforce complaints that Obama is ineffective and less adept at governing than campaigning. And it could poison the well ahead of inevitable clashes on legacy-defining issues for the president, including comprehensive immigration reform.

Operatives on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue now question the prospects for a “grand bargain” on fiscal issues in Obama's second term.

And when he criticizes Washington's political climate, Obama's challenge is to not come off as one of those responsible for the gridlock.

Critics contend the president has been unable to change the capital’s culture.

“He got re-elected,” Schlapp said. “But he's never been able to do anything of a substantial nature that is bipartisan. Obamacare only passed with Democratic votes.”

But as the much-scrutinized “winning” quip showcased, the White House believes it has the upper hand. Supporters say Obama learned from previous failed attempts to reach across the aisle and believes backing down now would set a terrible precedent for him and future presidents.

When asked if Obama was undercutting his own political brand, a senior administration official had a simple, if curt, answer.

“Of course not,” the official said dismissively. “Why would you think that?”

View article comments Leave a comment