President Obama's deepening involvement in budget talks reflects an unspoken reality of Washington's latest mini-drama: No one knows who will get the blame if the government shuts down.
Republicans took the hit when the government last closed its doors, during a similar budget impasse in the mid-1990s. But this time could be different.
Obama met twice Thursday with Republican House Speaker John A. Boehner and Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid, an indication that pressure was intensifying for an agreement ahead of Friday's midnight deadline to avoid a shutdown.
Public opinion surveys show that both sides could be blamed if Democrats and Republicans can't come to terms. But those polls mean nothing if the government starts closing down and politicians begin measuring the public's reaction, including that of prized independent swing voters.
"This is like going into the no-man's land, where there are land mines left and right, and you're not sure which step is a safe one," said Neil Newhouse, a Republican pollster. "Both sides need to make sure that their respective political bases are covered, and neither side wants to appear to give away the store."
In theory, if not reality, Obama holds the upper hand. He's more popular than the Congress, polls show. He has the presidential megaphone and can out-communicate a very diffuse congressional opposition.
But he also has to watch his left flank. Any budget agreement is virtually certain to make deep cuts in liberal spending priorities. Once details become known, it could revive unpleasant memories for Obama supporters of the lame-duck tax deal he cut with Republicans in December and provoke another angry response.
As the clock ticked down, Obama, congressional Democrats and their Republican adversaries faced risks and a bounty of unanswered questions: If the government shuts down, how long will it last? Closing for a few days will probably have only minimal effect, in line with winter snowstorms that periodically shutter operations. If the impasse persists for several weeks, as was the case in late 1995 and early 1996, what happens during the shutdown?
Obama and Reid said it would imperil the nation's economic recovery, though economists play down any significant threat unless a shutdown were prolonged.
And how does it finally end? Will one party or the other appear to have gained or lost ground as a result?
Already, Democrats have tentatively agreed to steeper cuts than they seemed likely to accept a few weeks ago. Republican demands for even more have led Reid to complain about trying to kick a field goal through a moving target.
But Republican Boehner may have the most to lose: He is balancing demands for more spending cuts from "tea party"-inspired colleagues, including many GOP freshmen, against his need to create a workable template for even more consequential dealings ahead — over raising the debt limit and passing a 2012 budget.
Key, as always these days, will be the reaction of independent voters. Most of these swing voters want the warring parties in Washington to compromise, even if it is on an imperfect budget deal, rather than allow the government to shut down, according to a recent national opinion survey by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center.
But the large class of conservative Republicans that took office this year, vowing to cut government, is pushing GOP leaders to shrink government in even more dramatic fashion. That's similar to what happened in 1995, when Republicans led by House Speaker Newt Gingrich took charge after decades of Democratic control.
Steve Elmendorf, then advisor to House Democratic leader Richard A. Gephardt, says if there's another shutdown, the public will blame Congress — and congressional Republicans especially — rather than Obama.
But a former Gingrich advisor sees little comparison between then and now. "Boehner isn't Gingrich, which is a good thing, and Obama isn't [Bill] Clinton, which, for Democrats, is a bad thing," Rich Galen said.
Obama's personal engagement in attempting to break the impasse has served to counter a line of criticism — from Republicans and some Democrats — that he has been too aloof and uninvolved in the budget crisis, as in other issues. Repeatedly over the last three days he's appeared on television to criticize Congress' inability to resolve the issue and position himself as the more mature partner in the talks.
In the end, though, failure to avert a shutdown poses "risk for both sides," said Andrew Kohut, who directs the Pew center. Voters "may throw their hands up in disgust and say, 'Look at what a mess this is.' "