Government shutdown threat means it’s high noon for Obama

September 20, 2013

As the nation heads towards a government shutdown and defaulting on its debts, the two battling sides cannot even agree which election they are fighting. Republican presidential hopefuls are jostling for position ahead of the 2016 primaries while President Obama has his eyes on the midterms next year. Both sides insist they will not compromise; yet both sides cannot win.

The president’s blink over Syria has encouraged the GOP. His failure to act resolutely and stand by his promise to punish Bashar al-Assad for gassing his own people suggests that when he declared over the debt ceiling, “I will not negotiate over whether or not America keeps its word and meets its obligations. I will not negotiate over the full faith and credit of the United States,” he may have been bluffing, just like when he said about Syria, “A red line for us is, we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized.”

The Republicans who hope to launch their presidential bids by tapping into the energy of the Tea Party, currently obsessing about killing the Affordable Care Act by defunding it, are prepared to call the president’s bluff. For Senator Marco Rubio, whose reputation among Tea Partiers was dimmed by his attempts to broker immigration reform, the debt ceiling showdown at the end of the month is the perfect way to strangle Obamacare before it comes into full force. “I’m in favor of funding the government at the levels that were agreed to last year in the Budget Control Act and not spending a single penny more of hardworking taxpayer dollars on a disaster, which is Obamacare,” he said.

Rubio’s rivals sing from an identical hymn sheet. This is Senator Ted Cruz’s rendition of the “single penny” line: “Under no circumstances will I vote for a continuing resolution that funds even one single penny of Obamacare.” He is under the illusion the president, given the chance, will welcome the chance to abandon his healthcare reforms, which takes a lot of swallowing. As they enter their second term, presidents tend to be preoccupied with protecting their legacy. Perhaps Mr. Cruz thinks that when the president declared, “The law I passed is here to stay,” he had his fingers crossed behind his back, just as he did over the Syrian red line.

Here is Senator Ron Paul explaining his populist reasons for backing the defunding of Obamacare: “Everywhere I go, people say, ‘Defund Obamacare,’ and so that’s where I am.” To give him his due, he knows threatening to defund Obamacare is just a gambit. “We were elected to represent the people who said defund Obamacare. So I think we should represent them,” he explained. It’s not exactly a principled stand, but he knows, like his rivals, that to win the nomination for 2016 he will need to appear to have tried to defund Obamacare whether it works out or not.

You don’t have to be a progressive, or a socialist, or a liberal, or even a moderate conservative to believe it would be unpopular to shut down the government, with all the misery and human anguish that will ensue, and even more unpopular to cause the markets to crash by allowing America to default on its debts. All polls suggest the same: even a majority of Republican voters would blame the Republican leadership for inviting such disasters upon the country. Charles Krauthammer, the dean of conservative commentators, believes that such a course would be “suicidal” for the GOP.  “The only thing it will do is to undo all the gains the Republicans have made over the past year, and undo their very real chances of having great successes next year,” he said.

And it is “next year” the president has his eyes set on. The obstructionism of the House Republicans who make House Speaker John Boehner tear up at the mere mention of defunding appears to have got to the president, who hopes he may win back the House next year. Like Woodrow Wilson and the Treaty of Versailles, the president has long since abandoned trying to persuade the irreconcilables on Capitol Hill, and has taken his plea for rational government on the road, where he points out how many more Americans would be in jobs were it not for GOP inaction. He believes that once Obamacare is fully established, it will turn out to be popular, just as universal healthcare has proven popular in every other country. That is what the Tea Party fears, too.

There was a strong element of exposing rifts among congressional Republicans when the president threw Congress the Syria dilemma to solve. There has been no clearer way of showing how fiscal hawks have overwhelmed defense hawks in the GOP than in the diametrically conflicting views of Senators John McCain and Rand Paul, or Lindsay Graham and Ray Blunt, over intervening in Syria.

The president is also enjoying watching the GOP leadership wriggle as they try to contain the damage to their party’s national standing caused by posturing over defunding Obamacare, the sequester, the debt ceiling, and shuttering the government. To make the embarrassment worse for the few moderates who dare put their head above the parapet while the Tea Party is on the rampage, he has — to the chagrin of his liberal supporters — even agreed to cut some social programs in exchange for modifying the worst horrors of the brutal arbitrary cuts imposed by the sequester.

The last time Republicans shut down the government — twice — in the winter of 1995, the public outrage rebounded on the architect of the resulting mayhem, Newt Gingrich, whose anarchistic gambit House Majority Leader Tom DeLay dismissed as “the tirade of a spoiled child.” If, as Gingrich now contends, the closure of government offices, the failure to pay benefits, the placing of government workers on furlough, and all the other indignities and inconveniences eventually led to Bill Clinton’s epiphany that “the era of big government is over,” all prizes went to the president, whose popularity sharply increased, not to Gingrich, whose reputation was permanently diminished.

So now we have another blinking contest. Will the Republican presidential wannabes, with the Tea Party at their backs, dare to back down? Or will the president renege on his word, as he did over Syria, citing the merits of compromise and reasonableness when America’s prestige is put at risk. The most likely outcome right now is that Boehner, nominally leader of the House Republicans, will abandon the “Hastert Rule” — which says only measures that attract a majority of GOP votes should be brought before the full House — and allow a backroom deal to be done.

But what the president must be silently hoping for, though he dare not say it out loud, is that Messrs. Paul, Cruz and Rubio go the whole way, bringing government to a halt and causing markets to plummet at the prospect of America becoming a credit risk. During the shillyshallying over Syria he was painted as a blustering Wizard of Oz, hiding his timorousness behind a curtain. Now he has the chance to act like Dirty Harry, challenging his Republican tormentors to “Go ahead. Make my day.” If he doesn’t stand firm this time, he runs the risk of giving credence to Clint Eastwood’s comic portrayal of him at the Republican Convention last year as nothing but an empty chair.


Nicholas Wapshott is the author of  Keynes Hayek: The Clash That Defined Modern Economics. Read extracts here.

PHOTO: U.S. President Barack Obama speaks about the economy to mark the five-year anniversary of the U.S. financial crisis at the White House in Washington September 16, 2013. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque 


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“Government shutdown threat means it’s high noon for Obama” and great times for the media! Another manufactured crisis guaranteed to bring great headlines and advertising opportunities!

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

I don’t think the budget showdown can be compared to the backing down from military strikes against Syria. On Syria, Obama actually got a more favorable outcome since the deal with Russia will likely do much more to reduce and eliminate Assad’s chemical weapons than a strike would have. When it comes to the budget showdown and the GOP’s one-sided demands however, there’s no reason for Obama to back down.

Posted by delta5297 | Report as abusive

I’m no fan of O, but never, ever underestimate the GOP capacity to self-destruct.

Posted by ARJTurgot2 | Report as abusive


Hasn’t the media learned yet? Blah, blah, blah, … Does making outrageous, hopefully controversial statements attract viewers? Apparently, many who manage the media think so. Can they even imagine that most modestly intelligent people see them sinking into the muck raised by tabloids, a source of wicked entertainment?

Posted by ptiffany | Report as abusive

Republicans vote to save their paychecks instead of paying for sick poor children

Posted by Anonymous | Report as abusive

The situation in Syria cannot even begin to be compared to the budget issue. This is one irresponsible piece of writing. How on earth did it get published? This is not what I would expect from Reuters.

Posted by Des3Maisons | Report as abusive

Of course the situation in Syria does not compare to the budget showdown. However President Obama has indeed shown some hesitation when he “blinked” (an that’s what he did at least in appearance) on Syria, the Bush tax, and other issues. And yes this has probably emboldened extremist both in the US and abroad to push just a little further that they would otherwise. This is itself is probably the greatest danger that this nation is facing both internally and externally. I certainly would not promote the idea of a Bush era approach to handling Syria. However the president is THE leader of this country, and not a politician playing games with Congress (especially when Congress is openly hostile). After the red line had clearly been crossed (multiple times apparently), either punish the Syrian or go to Congress but do not take the approach of punishing but “by the way let Congress take the responsibility.” And please do not pretend that this is a red line set by the world. As the British have clearly indicated, no-one cares (and just in case it was not clear, the UN affirmed it by its complete inaction and lack of the decency of condemning the Syrian government directly). It is a sad statement but this is a fact and President Obama cannot simply hide behind it.

Posted by jtfromla | Report as abusive

Obama did not “back down” on Syria. What a bizarre and spurious equivalency. Much more germane is that he didn’t back down when Obamacare got passed. He sacrificed a public option and made pragmatic compromises, but he got it passed and it is now the law. Why would anyone think he would “back down” in the face of a cockamamie and internecine gambit to defund it?

Posted by senn590 | Report as abusive

I cannot wait for the GOP to show us again what morons they are.

Posted by PhilliesIn2013 | Report as abusive

remember the disastrous sequester? Nothing happened to anyone. Is there anyone out there in reader land that can actually give an instance where they were hurt by it? Maybe we should consider shutting the government down on alternate months and save us all a lot of money!

Posted by zotdoc | Report as abusive

Unfortunately, the gap between the White House and the House of Representatives over the budget and debt ceiling may be wider than that between the United States of America and Russia over Syria. The latter appears to be bridgeable, for which many are relieved, perhaps including some who consider taking the opportunity to relieve Syria of its chemical weapons as blinking rather than punishing Syria, but not including those who would, for the sake of projecting a stubbornly resolute image, prefer waging war, no matter how counterproductive it might be, to pursuing diplomatic means to an end. The former may be harder to bridge because it’s harder to find a solution that lets everyone declare some measure of victory. Maybe an obsession with blinking is part of the problem. And maybe shilly-shallying is the best move when treading on shifting sands. Who was it who said, “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?” Lord (Keynes) knows…

Casting the worst possible klieg light back at those who command the key grips and gaffers, it might be inferred that the conventional media are upset that they can no longer direct the US and its allies into wars that ensure those media of the high traffic that justifies high ad revenues, not just during the all too short rally-the-troops and wave-the-flag phase, but over the all important, long, drawn out, thousand-mile-stare and flag-burning-riots-in-the-streets phase during which the media castigate the US and its allies for waging immoral and counterproductive warfare. After the war ends, its history is exploited for a flood of major motion pictures that inundate the silver-screen theater of war, generating profits for the generations of mostly non-combatants who bravely serve the armies of the conventional media. But wait – There’s more! Pontificating and politicising abound forever after, as either the sanity or the patriotism of everyone concerned is impugned. And, of course, there’s the never-ending hand-wringing over the blowback that inevitably leads to the next war, which provides yet another business cycle. Not that there’s anything wrong with intervention, mind you. Perhaps America’s finest instance of post-WWII intervention was when it allied with the USSR against Britain, France and Israel, when the latter three were trying to wrest the Suez Canal from Egypt in 1956-1957. (Say what you will, but I like Ike. Yes, we’ll long continue to suffer the consequences of Eisenhower’s ill fated post WWII alliance with Churchill that, in 1953, culminated in the Anglo-American orchestrated coup in Iran. And, no, the Guatemalan coup in 1954 didn’t work out so well in the long run, either. But he was still a good President, as Presidents go.)

Posted by MoBioph | Report as abusive

Those obstructionist, far left wing radicals in the democratic senate are willing to take America hostage and shut the government down just for the sake of “signature legislation” rammed down our throats just before the democrats lost the house in the 2010 election. They should go ahead and accept the defunding of obamacare which the majority of the American people oppose and try to take a rational approach to healthcare reform. It is the democrats who are ruining our country and I hope that they are dealt a major blow in the next election cycle and loose the senate and the presidency as well.

Posted by zotdoc | Report as abusive

The sequester hit the military, science, medicine and education. It made the national park system release seasonal rangers who led volunteers. It cut missions at NASA, research everywhere, and education outreach at NASA and at NPS. It’s pretty easy to find evidence of where the sequester hit if you actually look.

In an ever more competitive world, the sequester was running the USA at a little lower RPM, letting the world catch up as we let off the gas. The shutdown and debt ceiling drama are running us off the track.

Posted by Decatur | Report as abusive