Why Obama Doesn't Care If He's Winning or Losing the PR Battle

Now that he doesn't have to face voters again, it's about fixing the government.
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Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

You can spin a lot of things in a campaign that's a war of words and ideas, but it's a lot harder to spin a government shutdown about which Americans have increasingly direct personal experience.

Friday's campaign-style back-and-forth over who said what and who cares more about the suffering American people during the shutdown started with an anonymous senior administration official's declaration, quoted and paraphrased by the Wall Street Journal, that "'We are winning .... It doesn't really matter to us' how long the shutdown lasts 'because what matters is the end result.'"

"This isn’t some damn game!" House Speaker John Boehner exclaimed in reply, even though he knows that whatever the on-the-ground consequences, there is a lot of gamesmanship involved in apportioning blame. The early public finger-pointing over the shutdown may not be as important as the eventual strategy for getting out of what many Republicans, Democrats, and agency officials privately expect will be a protracted government closure, now that the debate over funding the government has begun to bleed into the debate over raising the debt limit. But that doesn't mean either side is willing to abandon it, either.

And for all the accusations of gloating hurled at the White House today, I heard something very different from senior administration officials Thursday: an awareness that Obama doesn't have to get elected again, and that that has freed him to take politically risky positions in the service of dragging the American political system out of chaotic and destabilizing patterns. As senior administration officials portrayed it, Obama has been working throughout the course of this year to rightsize the presidency. He sought Congress's approval for a military strike in Syria, even though the national-security establishment thought he should have just acted. For the president, it was about creating a precedent for war-making powers. (What followed, I should note, didn't exactly go smoothly.)

Negotiations on the debt limit, however, would weaken the office of the presidency, weaken democracy, and virtually guarantee a default in 2014 or the next time the debt limit needs to be increased, according to White House thinking. By sanctioning the threat of default to get things through the political process that wouldn't get through on their merits, Obama would be helping to create a new procedural tactic in American democracy that could nullify the outcome of elections by giving fresh powers to minority factions. 

Today's Gallup tracking poll data showing support for Obama again reaching a nadir -- 41 percent approval to 52 percent disapproval -- makes clear just how much is at stake for his presidency here. No matter how much the present stand-off hurts Republicans, there's no question but that it hurts him, too. Naturally every politician will seek to both win policy fights and cast himself as winning tough debates on deeply held beliefs, but for now at least it sounds like the president is willing to bear a certain amount of decline in public perception if he can take debt-limit increases off the table as a political bargaining tool.

“I was at the White House the other night, and listened to the president some 20 times explain to me why he wasn’t going to negotiate," Boehner said Friday.

I suspect we are all going to hear that a lot more in the days ahead. That doesn't mean there won't be conversations. It just means that they won't be about making unrelated policy as a condition for a debt-limit increase.

"I'm happy to have negotiations, but we can't do it with a gun held to the head of the American people," Obama said during a lunchtime visit to Taylor Gourmet near the White House. Meanwhile, when it comes to the shutdown, "Nobody's winning," Obama said. "We should get this over with as soon as possible."

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Garance Franke-Ruta is a former senior editor covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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