This was not the speech of a president who felt like a winner. Even though all the experts have declared him the victor of the just-concluded battle over government spending and the debt ceiling, President Obama sure didn't look the part during the 20 minutes it took him to deliver remarkably somber remarks in the State Dining Room.
Instead, this was somebody who looked disgusted at what he had just been through, somebody who has yet to accomplish any of his second-term goals, somebody who was just embarrassed internationally and remains frustrated domestically. More so than just about anyone else in Washington, he understands the damage that was done to the country, the economy, and his high hopes for second-term accomplishments by the bruising battle with congressional Republicans.
It seemed more than mere rhetoric when he lamented all the talk about "the politics of this shutdown" and declared that "there are no winners here." Even as he welcomed back to work the furloughed government workers—including much of his own staff—he surveyed the landscape and saw nothing but debris and "completely unnecessary damage." He suggested it could be worse than anyone yet suspects, stating, "We don't know yet the full scope of the damage, but every analyst out there believes it's slowed our growth" and hurt the housing market and consumer confidence. That will show up in the economic statistics to be released in coming months. But beyond that, he knows that will make it more difficult for him to push his own agenda.
And any progress report for his second term is discouraging. It has only been nine months since his hopeful Inaugural Address. That day, he spoke of what he would do at home on immigration, climate change, infrastructure, education, and renewable energy. Looking abroad, he spoke of strengthened alliances. All would be possible, he said, if only Washington did not "mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate."
As the last two weeks sadly demonstrated, Washington did not take his advice.
Internationally, the president clearly understands the damage done both to his agenda and American standing by the shutdown showdown. Rather grimly, he acknowledged that U.S. diplomats "have been hearing from their counterparts internationally." What they are hearing is that "probably nothing has done more damage to America's credibility in the world, our standing with other countries, than the spectacle that we've seen these past several weeks. It's encouraged our enemies, it's emboldened our competitors, and it's depressed our friends, who look to us for steady leadership."
Obama himself has heard from foreign leaders. Perhaps nothing was more embarrassing to him than the calls he had to make at the start of the shutdown to the leaders he was forced to snub at a long-planned Asian trip that was to have him meet with 23 other leaders and engage in talks crucial to his "pivot" to Asia and the final stages of critical trade talks.
No matter how many phone calls he makes, the president will not regain that missed opportunity and will not easily recoup the missed discussions with the heads of Russia and China at a time when the United States seeks their cooperation across the globe.
So, even as Democratic groups exult in the humbling of tea-party Republicans and raise campaign funds on the back of the shutdown triumph, the president fully understands he cannot take many more "victories" like this if he is to preside over robust economic growth and a successful second term. It is why perhaps the weakest moment of his State Dining Room remarks was when he tried to strike a hopeful tone. "We'll bounce back from this," he said. "We always do." On this, he seemed less than convincing.
This article appears in the October 18, 2013 edition of NJ Daily.