WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama promised this time would be different, that if he won re-election, a Republican “fever” would break and legislative gridlock would ease.
Yet just over a month into his second term, Washington is once again mired in a partisan budget battle. And rather than figuring out a way to work with Republicans, Obama is largely ignoring them, trying instead to build public support for his approach to averting automatic budget cuts – and perhaps overplaying his hand if the dire consequences he’s warning of are not quickly felt by many Americans.
For their part, Republicans are ignoring Obama, too, choosing biting news conferences on Capitol Hill over negotiations with the president.
As a result, $85 billion is almost certain to be yanked from the nation’s budget beginning Friday. After more than two years of bitter, down-to-the-wire negotiations over raising the debt ceiling, shutting down the government and preventing tax hikes on most people, a failure to push off the looming cuts would mark the first time Obama and Congress actually had blown past a crucial economic deadline.
That’s hardly the rosy scenario Obama promised as he ran for re-election and tried to convince voters that Washington would be a different place in his second term.
At a fundraiser in June the president told donors that if he won re-election, “the fever may break, because there’s a tradition in the Republican Party of more common sense than that.”
“My expectation is that after the election, now that it turns out that the goal of beating Obama doesn’t make much sense because I’m not running again, that we can start getting some cooperation again,” he added.
Obama advisers insist there are some signs the “fever” has eased since the November election. In a major concession, Republicans gave in to Obama during the year-end “fiscal cliff” negotiations when he insisted on higher tax rates for upper income earners. And the GOP decided last month to extend the debt limit for three months after previously demanding that any increase be paired with an equal amount of spending cuts.
But that doesn’t mean the GOP is ready to give in again as Washington lurches toward Friday’s deadline. Some Republicans see the sequester battle as their best opportunity to stand their ground and exact deep spending cuts from Obama – even if it means taking money from the Pentagon, a step Republican lawmakers have traditionally opposed.
After all, many House Republicans believe they have a mandate to cut spending significantly. Despite a dismal national approval rating, the GOP maintained control of the House — even though it lost seats — in the November election, in part by pledging to cut government spending and block Obama’s proposals for increasing taxes.
“Republicans feel very strongly that they have a substantive argument on the spending problem, particularly given the way the national debt has increased over the last four years,” said Kevin Madden, a Republican strategist and former adviser to GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney. “They believe that in the long run, having fought on those issues is going to be a part of bringing back the Republican Party.”
And Obama isn’t budging on his insistence on higher tax revenue along with spending cuts.
The White House has warned that the broad-based $85 billion in cuts could affect everything from commercial flights to classrooms to meat inspections. The cuts would slash domestic and defense spending, leading to forced unpaid days off for hundreds of thousands of workers.
But the impact won’t be immediate, giving negotiators some breathing room to work on a deal.
That is, if both sides decide to actually start negotiating.
No serious talks to avert the budget cuts are under way, even among White House and congressional staff. There have been no face-to-face meetings between Obama and Republicans this year. And there’s been just one known phone call this year between Obama and the top congressional Republicans, House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Instead, Obama is focusing his efforts on rallying public support for his sequester offset plan, including a trip Tuesday to Newport News, Va., an area that could be hurt by the defense cuts. His message to America: The cuts will be drastic; they’ll result in job loss, and Republicans will be to blame.
Polling suggests the president’s strategy may be working. A new Washington Post-Pew Research poll showed that 45 percent of Americans would blame congressional Republicans if the cuts took effect, while 32 percent would blame Obama. An additional 13 percent said both sides would share in the blame.
But getting the public to blame Republicans doesn’t ensure the president gets what he wants in this latest budget battle. It could also deepen the mistrust between the president and congressional Republicans.
And that may put Obama right back where he started: still searching for a way to fight a Republican “fever” that may have eased but has hardly broken.