Hold Fast, Mr. President …

It makes good political sense, at least at the moment, not to budge on negotiations with Republicans. Their conduct makes Obama look reasonable.

WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 23: U.S. President Barack Obama waves a Louisville Slugger baseball bat presented to him by the Louisville Cardinals, the 2013 NCAA Men's Basketball Champions, during an event in the East Room of the White House July 23, 2013 in Washington, DC. The Louisville Cardinals defeated the Michigan Wolverines in the championship game by a score of 82-76. 
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George E. Condon Jr.
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George E. Condon Jr.
Oct. 3, 2013, 4:15 p.m.

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.

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