Government Shutdown Endgame: Last Minute Strategy Details
A dramatic 11th-hour intervention by Obama? A capitulation over the last few billions? With a shutdown imminent, Daniel Stone reports on the president's attempt to style himself as a mediator—and the Republicans' efforts to seize the narrative.
White House officials often assign to President Obama a series of sports metaphors. He's the closer, he's the 11th hour, he's an overtime quarterback, he runs marathons rather than sprints. But as the hours tick, could Obama drive toward the end zone?
Some White House staffers are waiting for something dramatic, citing to reporters and Newsweek Obama's previous episodes of 11th hour theatrics. There was the Bush tax cut compromise last year that Obama brokered just hours before Christmas. And the late-night health care meetings earlier in 2010 that came to a tense end.
But the most dramatic scene from Obama occurred during the 2009 U.N. climate conference in Copenhagen, when Western and Asian leaders holed up in a private meeting to forge a secret compromise. Having heard the meeting was in progress, a frustrated Obama barged into the room unannounced with senior staff, sat down and brokered an endgame to the conference.
Administration staffers aren't giving up much about Obama's plans for the day. With a clear schedule—and a canceled trip to Indiana on Friday—Obama, two officials say, is prepared to do whatever it takes, time-wise, to get a deal done, which includes the prospect for a late afternoon trip to the Hill, or more impromptu White House meetings with Hill leadership.
The White House is maneuvering to cast the president as the mediator, rather than a party in the dispute.
Meanwhile, the White House is maneuvering to cast the president as the mediator, rather than a party in the dispute. In a late-night speech Thursday, Obama said that he recognized that "both sides of the political spectrum are unhappy with certain parts of the package, and I understand those concerns"—a line seemingly chosen to distance the president from the specifics of the debate. "But that's the nature of compromise," he said, "sacrificing something that each of us cares about to move forward on what matters to all of us."
• Michelle Cottle: Why I Pity Boehner• Daniel Stone: The Capitol Hill Shutdown Slumber Party• Government Shutdown: Full coverageIn the ongoing spin war with Republicans over whose fault it would be if the government actually shut down for the weekend, the West Wing is said to be preparing press releases of anecdotes from people affected by the congressional drama. In a previous late evening address, Obama cited a man interviewed by ABC News who described his struggle living paycheck to paycheck, and how a shutdown would affect his family. "I couldn't have said it better myself," Obama said, after quoting the man. Many such stories are expected to be sent to reporters, especially over the weekend as families can't visit government buildings in Washington, and festivities associated with the National Cherry Blossom festival will be canceled.
House Republicans, however, aren't willing to let the president paint himself as the only adult in Washington, as a leader who, in the style of Bill Clinton, feels the country's pain. "Adults take seriously the crushing burden of debt Washington is leaving for our kids and grandkids," says Brendan Buck, a senior aide to Speaker John Boehner. "That's why Republicans are fighting for meaningful spending cuts that will not only reduce our deficit but produce a better environment for job creation in America."
Yet some pundits have suggested that the entire debate might not be over a few billion dollars or even several controversial policy riders. The game of chicken among both parties might actually be a test of the other party's resilience. A continuing budget is relatively small peanuts, but when Washington gets to the really big matters, like entitlement reform or the 2012 election, each side wants to have the upper hand—and credibility with its base.
Daniel Stone is Newsweek's White House correspondent. He also covers national energy and environmental policy.