White House

Obama Doesn’t Sound Like a Winner

The president is embarrassed by the shutdown spectacle and worried about its economic impact.

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 17: U.S. President Barack Obama makes a statement at the State Dining Room of the White House October 17, 2013 in Washington, DC. Obama said the American people are completely fed up with Washington and called on cooperation to work things out. 
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George E. Condon Jr.
Oct. 17, 2013, 9:05 a.m.

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.


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