WASHINGTON — In 2011, with the government dangling on the edge of default, President Obama and House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) engaged in nearly daily negotiations. There were regular phone calls, talks and red wine at the White House. There were blow-ups, make-ups and then a deal.
Now, two years later, Obama waited more than 40 hours after the federal government was shut down to invite Boehner and the other top congressional leaders to the White House for a sit-down, which appeared to involve little negotiating.
As he deals with a standoff that could scramble the politics of his second term, Obama has adopted a new approach to Congress: He is keeping his distance.
The shift from hands-on to arm’s-length is at the core of the White House strategy, a deliberate change made easier by the nature of the budget stalemate. Republicans are divided over the tactics that led to the first government shutdown in 17 years. Boehner is driving, but tea party conservatives are the GPS.
That has allowed White House officials to argue that they have no one with whom to negotiate. Wading into the fracas without an empowered negotiating partner would just leave the president muddied, said a senior administration official, who asked not to be identified to discuss White House strategy.
Keeping the president out of the fray comes with risks. Republicans have cast Obama as a leader who has shirked his role. “Though a prolific speechmaker, POTUS has failed his most basic obligation to participate in the process of governing our nation,” Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista) said in a Twitter statement Wednesday.
As congressional leaders emerged from the almost 90-minute White House meeting, Boehner kept up that line of attack. Americans “expect their leaders to come together,” he said, but the president “will not negotiate.”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) both responded that Boehner would “not take ‘yes’ for an answer.”
Reid also signaled that the stakes in the standoff had risen. He suggested that he now wanted a deal that not only would provide money to keep federal agencies running, but would also solve the next potential crisis — a showdown over the federal debt limit, which faces a mid-October deadline.
“We have a debt ceiling staring us in the face,” Reid said.
Obama did not speak after the meeting, but before it, he made clear that he would not negotiate until after legislation was passed to reopen the government and raise the debt limit.
“Then I am prepared to have a reasonable, civil negotiation around a whole slew of issues,” he said in an interview with CNBC.
Republicans greeted the invitation to the White House with skepticism. “We’re pleased the president finally recognizes that his refusal to negotiate is indefensible,” said Boehner spokesman Brendan Buck. “It’s unclear why we’d be having this meeting if it’s not meant to be a start to serious talks between the two parties.”
But some Democrats, who have pushed Obama to take a harder line with House Republicans, were wary of the president’s overture. They argued that such efforts had served primarily to provide political cover for Boehner, when he could not deliver the votes.
Reid, perhaps the leading proponent of the White House’s hands-off approach, distanced himself from what appeared to be a slight diversion from that strategy.
“I’ve been invited to a meeting; I’m going to go to the meeting,” Reid said.
But the White House is sensitive to the perception that it is taking the advice of former Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, who on Tuesday suggested that Obama “just sit back and watch.”
On Wednesday, the White House announced Obama would cut short a planned trip to Asia, a sign that he believed watching the crisis unfold from half a world away would make him appear too disconnected.
The administration also moved to defuse a potential public relations problem, with the National Park Service announcing that veterans groups would be allowed to visit the World War II memorial on the National Mall even though it and all other national parks and monuments are officially closed to visitors.
At the Capitol, the GOP-led House again moved to restore some of the most high-profile and politically popular federal functions. The chamber voted to reinstate money for national parks and museums, the District of Columbia government and the National Institutes of Health. Senate Democrats have no immediate plans to take up the bills.
Boehner sought to calm moderates who want to reopen government and asked them to have patience. “Now that we’ve made the jump, lit ourselves on fire, we’ve got to stay together,” said Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Tulare).
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) convened GOP leaders on the West Front steps of the Capitol to highlight the plan to reopen national parks and monuments, but was heckled by protesters chanting: “Pass the budget; let us work.”
Democrats took to the East Front steps to make the case that if Boehner brought a government spending bill to the House floor with no Obamacare amendments, it would pass. “Mr. Speaker, let the people’s House work its will. Why are you afraid of a little democracy in the House of Representatives?” asked Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.).
Obama’s stance on the shutdown differs from that of President Clinton, who was in the White House for the last two shutdowns. Clinton was facing a reelection campaign and was sensitive to political backlash.
“I don’t think President Obama feels any of those vulnerabilities,” said Dan Meyer, who was House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s chief of staff during those budget battles.
In 1995, after just five days, Clinton conceded to Gingrich’s demands and agreed to balance the budget in seven years. But later, in a subsequent shutdown over how fast to cut spending, Clinton did hold firm, and he emerged with public opinion firmly on his side.
Meyer said the 2007 fight over the war in Iraq offered a better parallel to this shutdown. Then, antiwar Democrats in Congress repeatedly pushed to end the war, just as Republicans today have repeatedly tried to end Obamacare. But President George W. Bush made no concessions. He knew the Democratic Party would not block a war-funding bill while troops were in the field. Congress, controlled by Democrats, passed the bill.
“The Democrats in 2007 rightly said, ‘OK, we’ve proven to the country we’re against the war and they’re for it,’” Meyer said. “They took their chips and cashed them in.”
Today, House Republicans have made their point and taken it a step too far, he said. “There is no reasonable prospect that you can achieve what you’re holding out for,” Meyer said. “It’s like Custer riding into Little Bighorn.”
There is, however, another battle around the corner — one the White House thinks has more potential for political and economic damage. And that could force the president back into the game.
Obama declared months ago he would not negotiate with Republicans over raising the limit on the nation’s debt, saying to lawmakers it was “their job” to pay the bills they had racked up. But with a mid-October deadline on the issue looming, the White House is offering a more nuanced definition of what it means not to negotiate.
The president will enter into discussions with Boehner once the speaker signals he is willing to part with his right flank and rely on Democrats to help pass a bill to raise the debt limit. Once Boehner decides he has to do that, the senior administration official said, Obama believes they can have a productive conversation. Spotting that moment, the official said, “is more art than science.”
Indeed, Obama already appears as focused on the debt-limit fight as the shutdown.
On Wednesday, he sat down with Wall Street executives to ask them to press Republicans to raise the debt limit and avert a default.
Emerging from the White House, the executives obliged, but also noted that they were not taking sides in the shutdown brawl.
“There’s precedent for a government shutdown,” said Goldman Sachs Chief Executive Lloyd Blankfein. “There’s no precedent for default.”
Michael A. Memoli and Jim Puzzanghera in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.