Is President Obama hopelessly naive or admirably optimistic? Obama says there is a new spirit of compromise in Washington that will manifest itself in the negotiations over federal spending for the current fiscal year. He expresses optimism that what an aide calls "this new environment" will make accommodation more likely.
Meanwhile, many in Washington are comparing the situation today to 1995 and 1996, when there was what amounted to a train wreck over the budget. President Bill Clinton and congressional Republicans, led by then House Speaker Newt Gingrich, couldn't agree on the priorities and the levels of federal spending, resulting in a government shutdown. In the end, that shutdown was blamed on the Republicans, not Clinton. They were branded as inflexible partisans who didn't know when to compromise and who placed ideology ahead of the public interest. A big reason was that the president's megaphone was a lot louder and more effective than the multiple voices coming from Congress. It still is. [Check out a roundup of political cartoons on the federal budget and deficit.]
Nearly everyone today says they want to avoid a similar collision, but another shutdown seems possible. If the White House and Congress fail to agree on a new budget for 2011 or can't enact a temporary solution, such as another stopgap spending measure, by March 18, the shutdown will start.
Current leaders in the Republican-controlled House, such as Speaker John Boehner, are demanding more reductions than the president and Democrats who control the Senate are willing to accept. In fact, the House voted 235 to 189 on February 19 to cut more than $60 billion, including many domestic programs that are strongly supported by the White House and majority Democrats in the Senate. After the vote, the divisions were deep and clear. "We will not stop here in our efforts to cut spending, not when we're broke and Washington's spending binge is making it harder to create jobs," Boehner said. But Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner condemned the House action, arguing that it would "undermine and damage our capacity to create jobs and expand the economy."
Geithner, echoing Obama, said he expected that eventually "the Democrats and Republicans are going to come together on a program not just to reduce spending, but to reduce our long-term deficits." But no one seems ready to compromise just yet. [Read more about the deficit and national debt.]
GOP strategists argue that the situation has changed from 15 years ago and that the new calculus gives them the upper hand. They argue that voters are much more worried about the deficit today and are more eager for fiscal responsibility than they were in the 1990s. They point out that, in slashing spending, the Republicans are following through on promises made to the voters and especially to conservative Tea Party activists in the 2010 midterm elections, when the GOP took control of the House and came close to capturing the Senate. And Republicans say the media climate also works to their benefit today, with Fox News, conservative talk radio, and the Internet all helping the GOP get its message out more effectively than ever. If there is a shutdown, the party's leaders won't have to communicate nearly as much through a "mainstream media" that conservatives consider hostile to their agenda.
Obama hasn't been willing to step in and personally resolve the disputes so far but has insisted that the GOP cuts would go too deep. In Ohio last week, he repeated his support for a five-year spending freeze for many domestic programs and added: "I want to work with Democrats and Republicans to make even bigger dents in our deficits—find new savings, cut excessive spending wherever it exists. At the same time, we can't sacrifice investments in our future." [Follow the money in Congress.]
Obama thinks that the brinksmanship will fade at the last minute. He argues that memories of the recession from 2009 and 2010, coupled with a widespread perception that voters are fed up with partisan wrangling in Washington, will encourage legislators to be pragmatic. He also doesn't think Boehner is as hard-edged and partisan as Gingrich was, which could leave everyone room to maneuver. Obama's advisers say he is confident that, in the end, congressional leaders will realize that what Americans want are results, not more playtime for legislators in the political sandbox.