Obama draws a line

U.S. President Barack Obama walks out before he makes a statement to the media about the government shutdown in the briefing room of the White House in...
U.S. President Barack Obama walks out before he makes a statement to the media about the government shutdown in the briefing room of the White House in...
Larry Downing/Reuters

Barack Obama has enraged liberals for years, caving to Republicans in big fiscal fights again and again.

Then came the shutdown showdown of 2013.

This time Obama’s held the line against Republicans, refusing to sign any law that changes Obamacare in exchange for reopening the government.

“It is settled and it is here to stay,” Obama said of the healthcare law during a speech Tuesday afternoon.

The White House said Obama would veto any piecemeal bills that fund parts of the federal government but don’t end the shutdown as a whole.

For the man who ran for president as a post-partisan uniter, it’s a big moment. He’s drawn a line in the sand. The question is: will he hold it?

Allies and opponents alike say that he must, if he wants to get anything done over the next two years. He needs to stick to his guns and exert his authority during the coming fights. If he caves, he’s doomed.

“From his perspective, he’s got to win this one to show that he’s not a completely powerless president, on the international stage,” John Feehery, a former top aide to Speaker Dennis Hastert who’s now with the lobbying firm QGA, told MSNBC. “He’s got to at least be able to show he can govern.”

At the same time, Feehery said Obama might ultimately have to deal to get out of the impasse—perhaps not on Obamacare, but by agreeing to further spending cuts. “The president runs the country, and he’s going to get the lion’s share of the blame,” Feehery said, expressing a widely-held view on the right that an extended shutdown will hurt the president more than the GOP. “And basically taking the position that I’m not going to negotiate doesn’t work with most Americans.”

Supporters of the president say he’s been open to discussions on spending and other budget issues—but not when Republicans are using the threat of a government shutdown or a debt default as a bargaining chip. And they don’t expect him to budge from that stance.

“He’s always looking to include ideas from the other party,” Michael Feldman, a former congressional liaison for President Clinton and a founding partner of the Glover Park Group, a Washington lobbying firm, told MSNBC. But, he said, “trying to undo the will of the electorate and the American people by holding up the entire federal government is not something you can compromise with.”

To the frustration of many progressives, the tendency to talk is rooted deeply in the president’s DNA. During his first presidential campaign, Obama distinguished himself from front-runner Hillary Clinton by stressing his greater willingness to move beyond what he described as outdated partisan divisions and appeal to the better instincts of his adversaries.

Once in office, during an earlier fight over lifting the debt ceiling in summer 2011, he acceded to Republican demands for major spending cuts—despite economists’ warnings that they’d hurt the still-fragile recovery. That’s what led to the sequester cuts that have decimated crucial social programs that some of the neediest Americans count on. And at the end of that year, he backed an eleventh hour agreement with congressional leaders that led to further cuts. “Both sides had to make tough decisions,” Obama said of that deal.

Obama has also agreed to delay several aspects of the law, including the employer mandate and the creation of state-based exchanges, after critics complained that the original schedule was unworkable.

That past willingness to compromise could be undercutting Obama’s position now, by feeding a belief among conservative Republicans that he’ll back down again. “I do think one of the problems he has is that the Tea Party guys all think that he’s going to cave,” Feehery said.

But Stan Greenberg, a veteran Democratic pollster, said the president and his top advisers are determined not to repeat the mistakes of 2011.

“When he was negotiating with Republicans against the debt ceiling limit, he crashed [ in the polls],” Greenberg told MSNBC “He lost a lot of support amongst Democrats. Democrats right now are very unified. I think they learned from that experience. I think he’ll be firm.”

Greenberg said that the GOP’s crusade against Obamacare has had the ironic result of forcing the president to commit to it even more strongly.

“I think they’ve seared into the public consciousness their opposition to it, but also Obama’s presidency is one that is linked to that change,” Greenberg said. “So he has to come out of that firmly protecting those changes. He can’t go back.”

Obama draws a line