WASHINGTON — By most measures, President Barack Obama emerged far stronger than his Republican adversaries in Washington’s latest fiscal fight. He gave away virtually nothing and his hard-line tactics exposed deep divisions among Republicans and growing public frustration with the GOP.
But Obama’s victory came with strings attached. Under his watch, big swaths of the federal government were shuttered for 16 days, forcing hundreds of thousands of workers off the job and restricting many services. The nation was brought to the brink of a default for the second time in two years. And Congress’ last-minute deal generated yet another round of looming deadlines on the same issues, with no guarantee that Republican opposition to Obama’s objectives will be dampened in any way.
“What comes next is very unpredictable,” said Steve Schmidt, a Republican strategist. “The notion that this group of people is going to be chastened by this, while it seems obvious, is uncertain.”
Indeed, there’s little consensus among Republicans about how to proceed in the aftermath of the budget crisis. Some conservatives who demanded changes to Obama’s health care law in exchange for funding the government have signaled they’re ready to dig in for another fight. Among them is Kansas Rep. Tim Huelskamp, who said Republicans may have “lost the battle but we’re going to win the war.”
But other GOP lawmakers are demanding that their party make a course correction.
“Hopefully, the lesson is to stop this foolish childishness,” said John McCain, the longtime Arizona senator.
Republicans will have to quickly settle on a strategy. The deal that ended this month’s standoff only keeps the government open through Jan. 15 and extends borrowing authority through Feb. 7, though emergency measures may give the administration another month before reaching the debt limit. The agreement also requires bipartisan negotiators to issue a report by Dec. 13 on broader budget issues like spending levels, deficit reduction and entitlement reforms — all matters over which the White House and congressional Republicans have long been at odds.
What happens during this next round of deadlines will help clarify whether Obama’s October win has done anything to alter the political dynamic in Washington or whether it was an isolated achievement.
The White House said the president is entering the next phase of the debate with a similarly unyielding strategy. Aides said he is willing to make concessions as part of a larger budget deal but won’t let Republicans make funding the government or lifting the debt ceiling contingent on certain outcomes.
Some GOP leaders had assumed Obama would abandon that hard-line stance during the most recent debate. Many were taking their lessons from the last budget and debt fight in 2011, when Obama indeed made concessions to keep the government open and avoid a default.
But Republicans misread how political shifts in Washington over the past two years had affected the president, and in particular how Obama’s resolve had been stiffened by the fact he doesn’t have to run for office again. Staunch conservatives also ignored warnings from more moderate Republicans, who argued that Obama would never agree to changes in the health care law that remains his signature legislative achievement.
“A fundamental flaw — and probably the biggest flaw — was that they were negotiating for something that wasn’t really negotiable,” said Patrick Griffin, who served as President Bill Clinton’s legislative affairs director during the 1995 government shutdown.
The start of the government shutdown coincided with the start of sign-ups for the “Obamacare” law’s health insurance exchanges — a rollout that was marred by widespread problems. In an ironic twist, the Republican insistence on shutting down the government in order to make changes to the law wound up overshadowing its glitches and a glaring embarrassment for the president.
The result of the Republican miscalculations: a wave of public opinion polls showing that the GOP took the biggest hit as the budget war dragged on. A Washington Post-ABC News survey released Monday found 74 percent disapproved of the way the Republicans in Congress were handling negotiations over the federal budget, up 11 points since just before the shutdown began. Views on how Obama and congressional Democrats handled the budget battle tilted negative but did not change significantly over the course of the shutdown.
Despite their dour approval ratings, Republicans may again try to test whether Obama is willing to hold his hard line in the new year. But Obama — long a believer in the power of public opinion — is banking that the anger Americans aimed at Republicans in recent weeks will persuade them to shift course.
“The Republicans recognize this was not a good strategy and seeing the horrible reaction from the American people, I’m pretty sure they’re not going to run this play again,” the president said.
Julie Pace has covered the White House for The Associated Press since 2009.