WASHINGTON — In this political and fiscal showdown, President Obama remained largely on the sidelines, avoiding direct negotiations with Republican lawmakers and keeping himself out of the nitty-gritty fight on Capitol Hill.
His seeming willingness to allow a government shutdown without direct intervention helped illustrate how Democrats remained unified around the belief that Republicans would suffer the greater backlash — and that the GOP’s tactics could help the Democratic Party in 2014 and perhaps beyond.
Underscoring the strategy from his safe remove, Obama went before television cameras at the White House Monday and publicly scorned Republican leaders. It was his most visible action of the day on the subject.
“You don’t get to extract a ransom for doing your job,” Obama said, chiding House Republicans for giving too much credence to “the extreme right wing of their party.”
He said the GOP would be blamed for the shutdown of such national parks as Yosemite and of tourist destinations including the Statue of Liberty and the Smithsonian museum.
For weeks, the White House has been far more focused on implementing the health care law — which opens for enrollment on Tuesday — than on preventing the government shutdown.
Obama’s posture has been far different than in 2011, the last time there was a threat of a government shutdown, when Obama invited members of Congress to meet with him at the White House. He went to the microphones in the briefing room to update reporters on the talks.
But in the final days leading up to Monday night’s deadline, Obama went golfing with several aides on Saturday. He held no public events on Sunday.
Republicans have criticized Obama for being more willing to negotiate with President Vladimir Putin of Russia and President Hassan Rouhani of Iran than he is with them in Congress. But on the flip side, Obama has seemingly found traditional US enemies abroad easier to deal with than House Republican leadership.
As if to underscore his anything-but-shutdown focus, Obama met in the Oval Office on Monday not with House Speaker John Boehner but with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel. And as a mid-October deadline looms for raising the national debt limit, another flashpoint with Congress, Obama plans to leave on Sunday for a weeklong trip to Asia.
Although Obama has delivered defiant speeches, and made appearances like the one he did Monday, he has not been as deeply involved in negotiations. That has seemed to suit Democratic leaders; when Obama wanted to host a meeting with lawmakers from both sides at the White House, the majority leader, Senator Harry Reid, reportedly encouraged him not to proceed, and the meeting was scrapped.
Obama on Monday night called the four top leaders in Congress, including a 10-minute conversation with Boehner. But little seemed to change, with aides suggesting the leaders did little beyond reiterate their positions.
“I’m very concerned. I don’t want to see a shutdown occur,” said Senator Susan Collins, a Republican from Maine. “I think that represents a failure of government and I’m amazed that the president has been missing in action in what has been a real crisis at this point.”
Yet Obama also appears to be in a position to reap political benefit by not inserting himself into the muddy proceedings on Capitol Hill.
A CNN poll, conducted over the weekend, found that 46 percent of Americans would fault Republicans in Congress for the shutdown, while 36 percent said they would blame Obama. Expressed more vividly in the same poll, 69 percent said congressional Republicans were behaving “like a spoiled child,’’ compared with 58 percent who said congressional Democrats were conducting themselves that way.
“My view of Harry Reid and Democrats in the Senate and the White House is: Bring it on,” said Stuart Rothenberg, a nonpartisan political analyst. “I actually do think they want a shutdown. . . . They understand a shutdown is a political plus for them so they’re not going to cave.
“Their view is, ‘Republicans painted themselves into a corner. Let them get themselves out of the corner,’ ” he added.
It has left Democrats with hopes they can retain control of the Senate, and perhaps even break the Republicans’ grip on the House. Republicans are hoping that opposition to Obama’s health care law is strong enough that they will be rewarded for attempting to scrap or delay it.
The perilous path is giving mainstream conservative voices a serious case of the nerves.
“Some Republicans think they are sure to hold the House in 2014 no matter what happens because of gerrymandering, but even those levees won’t hold if there’s a wave of revulsion against the GOP,” the right-leaning Wall Street Journal editorial board wrote on Sept. 17. “Marginal seats still matter for controlling Congress. The kamikazes could end up ensuring the return of all-Democratic rule.”
Most analysts still consider the House an uphill battle for Democrats, particularly given the way many of the districts have been drawn to make seats safe for incumbents. But there are still risks for Republicans, particularly if opinions begin to solidify the way they did during the last government shutdown in the mid-1990s.
“If you look at the landscape race by race, you say there’s no way Democrats can get there,” said David Wasserman, who analyzes House races for the Cook Political Report. “But if you look at the political environment as a whole, Republicans have some downside risk as a result of pursuing this strategy.
“If voters start to tune in and see House Republicans as more extreme and a serious problem, that could change the math quite significantly,” he added.
In the Senate, 35 seats are up for grabs, but only a handful are expected to be in serious play. Republicans would need to gain six seats, as long as Mayor Cory Booker of Newark, as expected, wins back a seat in New Jersey this month that Republicans now hold because of an appointment by Governor Chris Christie.
Under most estimates, that means Republicans would have to win virtually all the competitive seats. Rothenberg, for example, rates seven seats as either pure tossups or leaning slightly one way or the other; Republicans would have to win six of those seats to reclaim the Senate majority.
Meanwhile, the next fiscal crisis facing Congress is on the horizon, and Democrats will be looking to capitalize politically again. Treasury officials have warned that the government will reach the debt limit by Oct. 17 if no action is taken.
Over a week ago, Obama called Boehner and told him tersely that there would be no negotiations around the debt ceiling.
“I don’t know how I can be more clear about this: Nobody gets to threaten the full faith and credit of the United States just to extract political concessions,” Obama said last week.
“The president says, ‘I’m not going to negotiate,’ ” Boehner said in response. “Well, I’m sorry, but it just doesn’t work that way.”