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03 October 2013

The President's Shutdown


Where leadership is needed, Obama stays on the sidelines—except when he's attacking Republicans.

By Fred Barnes

President Obama is sitting out one of the most important policy struggles since he entered the White House. With the government shutdown, it has reached the crisis stage. His statement about the shutdown on Tuesday from the White House Rose Garden was more a case of kibitzing than leading. He still refuses to take charge. He won't negotiate with Republicans, though the fate of ObamaCare, funding of the government and the future of the economic recovery are at stake. He insists on staying on the sidelines—well, almost.

Mr. Obama has rejected conciliation and compromise with Republicans. Instead, he attacks them in sharp, partisan language in speech after speech. His approach—dealing with a deadlock by not dealing with it—is unprecedented. He has gone where no president has gone before.

Can anyone imagine an American president—from Lyndon Johnson to Ronald Reagan, from Harry Truman to Bill Clinton—doing this? Of course not. They didn't see presidential leadership as optional. For them and nearly every other president, it was mandatory. It was part of the job, the biggest part.

LBJ kept in touch daily with Everett Dirksen, the Republican leader in the Senate, and never missed an opportunity to engage him in reaching agreement on civil rights, taxes, school construction and other contentious issues. Mr. Obama didn't meet one-on-one with Mitch McConnell, the Senate GOP leader, until 18 months into his presidency and doesn't call on him now to collaborate.

Heading to the Oval Office after speaking Tuesday about ObamaCare and Congress.

Presidents have two roles. In the current impasse, Mr. Obama emphasizes his partisan role as leader of the Democratic Party. It's a legitimate role. But as president, he's the only national leader elected by the entire nation. He alone represents all the people. And this second, nonpartisan role takes precedence in times of trouble, division or dangerous stalemate. A president is expected to take command. Mr. Obama hasn't done that.

The extent to which he has abdicated this role shows up in his speeches. On the eve of the shutdown, he warned that a government closure "will have a very real economic impact on real people, right away." Defunding or delaying his health-care program—the goal of Republicans—would have even worse consequences, he suggested. "Tens of thousands of Americans die every single year because they don't have access to affordable health care," Mr. Obama said.

In an appearance in the White House pressroom, he said that "military personnel—including those risking their lives overseas for us right now—will not get paid on time" should Republicans force a shutdown. At an appearance in Largo, Md., the president accused Republicans of "threatening steps that would actually badly hurt our economy . . . Even if you believe that ObamaCare somehow was going to hurt the economy, it won't hurt the economy as bad as a government shutdown."

Yet as he was predicting widespread suffering, Mr. Obama steadfastly refused to negotiate with Republicans. He told House Speaker John Boehner in a phone call that he wouldn't be talking to him anymore. With the shutdown hours away, he called Mr. Boehner again. He still didn't negotiate and said he wouldn't on the debt limit either.

Mr. Obama has made Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid his surrogate in the conflict with Republicans. Mr. Reid has also declined to negotiate. In fact, Politico reported that when the president considered meeting with Mr. Boehner and Mr. McConnell, along with the two Democratic congressional leaders, Mr. Reid said he wouldn't attend and urged Mr. Obama to abandon the idea. The president did just that.

By anointing Mr. Reid, President Obama put power in the hands of the person with potentially the most to gain from a shutdown. Mr. Reid's position as Senate leader is imperiled in next year's midterm election. Republicans are expected to gain seats. They need a net of six pickups to take control and oust Mr. Reid. His strategy is to persuade voters that the shutdown was caused by tea-party crazies in the GOP, and that turning over the Senate to them would be foolhardy. If Mr. Reid's claim resonates with voters, it might keep Republicans from gaining control of the Senate.

Mr. Obama insists that he is ready to discuss tweaks in ObamaCare "through the normal democratic processes." But, he said last week, "that will not happen under the threat of a showdown."

It probably won't happen in less frantic situations either. The president in the past has proved to be a difficult negotiating partner. In his first term, he blew up a "grand bargain" on taxes and spending with Mr. Boehner by demanding even higher taxes at the last minute. Without what Mr. McConnell calls a "forcing mechanism," no major agreement on domestic issues has been reached.

The three deals that Mr. Obama has signed off on—all negotiated by Vice President Joe Biden—were forced. The president agreed in 2010 to extend the Bush tax cuts for two years as they were about to expire. In 2012, he made the Bush cuts permanent except for the wealthiest taxpayers. In 2011, he agreed to spending cuts in exchange for an increase in the debt limit as it was close to being breached.

The president's tactic of attacking Republicans during a crisis while spurning negotiations bodes for a season of discord and animosity in the final three-and-one-quarter years of the Obama presidency. That he has alienated Republicans doesn't seem to trouble Mr. Obama.

"He's been a terrible president, just awful," Mr. McConnell told me. The McConnell agenda consists of stopping the president from raising taxes and boosting spending. And the focus on ObamaCare will continue. "The ObamaCare fight is not over," Mr. McConnell says. "This is the gift that keeps on giving."

Mr. Boehner has vowed to stay away from efforts to come to terms with the president on deficit reduction. Mr. Obama says he is willing to curb spending by reforming entitlements, but Republicans no longer believe him. They've given up on the possibility of a grand bargain.

Today the buzz in media circles in Washington is that the shutdown is a defining moment for Mr. Boehner. It may well be. But it's also a critical test of Mr. Obama's leadership. And by declining to lead, so far, he has failed that test.

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