Though he succeeded in staving off a historic default, President Obama emerges from the debt talks in a weakened political position with limited influence over a divided Congress.
The protracted debate over the federal debt ceiling came to an official end Tuesday as the Senate, by a 74-26 vote, approved the compromise bill hammered out over the weekend. Obama signed it hours later.
Administration officials concede the debate gave the public a look at government sausage-making at its worst. And White House officials also know that as president, Obama is the most visible symbol of a government that voters see as badly dysfunctional. The turmoil in Washington is not what voters signed up for when Obama was elected, officials say, acknowledging that as president, he absorbs a substantial share of voters’ unhappiness.
Voters used words such as “disgusting” and “ridiculous” in summarizing their view of the debt fight, according to one poll released this week. And that unhappiness comes as Obama faces fresh signs that the economic recovery is stalled.
Obama is hardly the only incumbent in trouble with voters. His approval ratings, which have dropped to the low 40s, still far exceed those of Congress. A Gallup poll last month showed that only 33% approved of congressional Democrats; 28% of Republicans. But congressional disapproval numbers are of limited comfort to a president facing a difficult reelection campaign.
Moreover, many Democrats — including some ordinarily sympathetic to the president — feel part of the problem is of Obama’s own making.
The president seemed not to anticipate the depth of Congress’ polarization — between the parties but also within the Republican caucus.
In December, as Republicans were preparing to take control of the House, Obama said that he didn’t expect any unusual drama when the time came to raise the federal debt ceiling. Republican leaders also “have responsibilities to govern,” he said.
Yet the “tea party” faction of the GOP exerted immense influence over House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) throughout the deficit reduction talks, showing a determination to avoid new or increased taxes, even if it meant risking an unprecedented default.
Some Democrats also question Obama’s negotiating skills, grumbling that he gave up weapons he could have used in the battle. In particular, many believe he should have left open the possibility of using the Constitution’s 14th Amendment, which holds that public debts “shall not be questioned,” to override the congressional limit on the federal debt. Even if Obama never actually used the 14th Amendment, the threat would have strengthened his negotiating position, Democrats say.
Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) said he had advised the White House to “assert” the president’s right to increase the debt ceiling using the 14th Amendment. It was clear that “they were contemplating that possibility,” Durbin said. But the White House never used the amendment as leverage to improve its bargaining position.
“It was a mistake to publicly take that off the table,” said another Democratic lawmaker, who spoke on condition of anonymity in order to discuss the negotiations. “I don’t know why you would do that.”
Given the acrimony and the high-stakes deadline, the impasse posed a severe test of Obama’s negotiating skills. On the fly he sought to improve his relationship with Boehner, inviting the speaker to play a round of golf early in the talks. But White House officials believe that personalities aren’t at the root of congressional paralysis.
Boehner, the White House believes, doesn’t wield the command of past speakers because he is caught in a pincer between tea party activists and an ambitious crop of lieutenants led by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.).
Some of Obama’s allies on Capitol Hill were sympathetic.
“The president was faced with a [tea party] group that was willing to use the political equivalent of nuclear detonation to get their way,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.). “So he had to figure out the best way to defuse the situation.”
Others are more critical, comparing Obama unfavorably with presidents who made broad use of their executive powers in times of crisis: Harry Truman, who nationalized the steel industry in 1952 in the face of a steel strike, for example, or John F. Kennedy, who denounced steel executives for price increases and threatened them with an antitrust investigation.
“I am just sorely upset that Obama doesn’t seize the moment,” Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) said as the final deal was coming together. “That’s what great presidents do in times of crisis. They exert executive leadership. He went wobbly in the knees.”
The debt compromise stands as a bookend to the healthcare overhaul Obama engineered early in his term. Both soaked up huge amounts of the White House’s time and political capital. But with healthcare, Obama achieved a legacy-making policy breakthrough that will insure 32 million more people.
The health bill may be unpopular with many, but administration officials hope it will be looked on more favorably over time as its provisions take effect. By contrast, the debt deal will be remembered not for what it accomplished but for the outcome it prevented: the U.S. defaulting on its debt obligations.
“I can understand the frustration” that Americans feel, Durbin said in an interview. “This was a manufactured political crisis. It was not a tornado or a flood. Politicians did this to themselves.”
Obama knows he has to make up ground, and fast. Even before he signed the bill in a low-key private ceremony in the Oval Office, he appeared in the Rose Garden and sought to change the subject. He made the case for a jobs agenda consisting of trade deals, road and bridge construction, and a patent overhaul.
Sounding every bit as annoyed as the voters, he said: “While Washington has been absorbed in this debate, people across the country are asking what we can do to help the father looking for work.”
Kathleen Hennessey and Lisa Mascaro in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.