By any measure historical or logical, President Obama's message should have fallen flat. "I will not negotiate" is not a particularly ringing or positive declaration. And it certainly is not very encouraging to Americans who expect their leaders to talk to each other and to hammer out their differences. But just days into a government shutdown that threatens to drag on, "I will not negotiate" has become a rallying cry for Democrats in Congress, progressives on the street, and a president who now appears surprisingly strong only two weeks after a less-than-stellar performance on Syria that left him looking dangerously weak.
For this surprising turn of events, Obama — once again — can thank his opponents. For all of Speaker John Boehner's frustration that the president will not engage on his terms, it was Boehner's Republicans who set the stage for the White House to win the messaging war over the shutdown. It was Boehner who declared in January he would no longer negotiate with the president. And it was Boehner's caucus that decided to force the shutdown over the extraneous issue of Obamacare rather than the central issues of budget and spending.
Obama was left with no alternative. If the fight was over spending, he would have followed the strategy President Clinton used during the shutdowns of 1995 and 1996. Clinton insisted he shared the GOP goals of cutting spending but offered what he said was a better and fairer way. He promised to balance the budget "in the right way" while protecting Medicare, Medicaid, education, and the environment. Before Republicans could react, Clinton had co-opted their message.
But, with the Affordable Care Act at stake, the Clinton playbook was useless to Obama. "He cannot accept the Republican message, which would mean repealing his signature piece of legislation. He can't say, "˜I agree we should repeal Obamacare, but I disagree about the timing,' " says Steven M. Gillon, a professor of history at the University of Oklahoma, who has studied those earlier shutdowns.
Still, Obama's refusal to negotiate could have put him on the defensive had the public not been prepped to accept it. The president's message in 2013 resonates in large part because it meshes so well with the message he has driven home so relentlessly since 2010, most especially last year. "It is working because these issues were really framed through the presidential election of 2012," Gillon said. "Obama very effectively defined the Republican Party as the party of extremists. This is a narrative that is familiar to people now so it is not like it is a debate that people are suddenly being forced to figure out."The distance between the two sides was evident even when the top congressional leaders came to the White House Wednesday. They couldn't even agree what the meeting was: Republicans said it was a negotiation; the White House said it was a "conversation."
Of course, even if voters will not punish Democrats for a failure to negotiate, their unhappiness with both sides is clear. As the man in charge at a time of dismal dysfunction in Washington, the president can't totally avoid damage. His approval ratings, already lowered by his actions on Syria, remain low. But he benefits from widespread unhappiness with Republicans' attempts to get rid of a health care law most voters believe was legitimately approved by Congress, validated by the Supreme Court, and ratified in a presidential election in which it was a central issue. In a poll this week conducted by the Morning Consult, a health care media company, respondents agreed by 66 percent to 33 percent that the election "represented a referendum on moving forward with implementation of the 2010 health care law." This is a central reason Obama's "no negotiations" message can work.
Too many Republicans have missed the power of Obama's argument because they are misled by the many polls that show widespread doubts about Obamacare. Armed with those numbers, Republicans feel justified in trying to change the rules. "But the American people want people to play by the rules of the game," says John Zogby, founder of the Zogby Poll. "And the rules of the game in this instance happen to be that legislation passes, it is signed, it is ratified by the Supreme Court."
At the least, the public does not back opponents' attempt to shut down the federal government in a final, desperate effort to undo the law. It is that desperation, more than any tactical brilliance on the part of White House strategists, that allows Democrats to stand firm. "You are often defined by the quality of your opposition. And Obama has benefited from that in this case," says Les Francis, the veteran Democratic operative who was deputy White House chief of staff to President Carter. "There are a couple of ways to win a ball game. One is to be really good. The other is to have a really lousy opponent. The Republicans are in really bad shape."
None of this means Democrats can anticipate similar success in messaging on the showdown over raising the debt ceiling. If they learn from their mistakes on the government shutdown, Republicans will make that a fight over spending more than a re-litigation of Obamacare. "I will not negotiate" will be a much tougher sell to a public that doesn't really understand the debt limit but well comprehends that the government spends too much. Every president before him has been forced to negotiate with Congress to see the limit lifted. Obama is not immune from that history.