House Republicans may have just given President Barack Obama the path to salvage the rest of his presidency Friday, when they took a political vote aimed at defunding the Affordable Care Act as a requirement for continuing to fund the government beyond Oct. 1.
But the effort grants Obama a golden opportunity to rehab his image before the American public, after a summer of slumping poll numbers and a series of controversies that have tested the support even from his own party. Obama has taken punches from Republicans and Democrats alike over revelations about domestic spying by the National Security Agency and his push for an unpopular military intervention in Syria. That has brought his poll numbers down as low as George W. Bush's at a similar time in his presidency. Bush's never recovered, but by going all-in on a budget fight with Congress, Obama may just be able to turn things around.
"If the president engages [Republicans] in a battle and takes them on and they go to extraordinary means, like for example shutting down the government with all the consequences that will flow from that, I think he's positioned himself to show people the strength of his leadership," says Tad Devine, a Democratic political strategist who worked on both Al Gore and John Kerry's presidential campaigns.
House Republicans, led by a rowdy, tea party faction on the party's right flank and inspired by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, are continuing their quixotic mission to erase the president's signature domestic policy, the Affordable Care Act, from existence. They've taken more than 40 votes to repeal the law, which have been ignored by the Democratically-controlled Senate. Now, they've taken the fight to government spending bills. Friday they passed a budget that would eliminate funding for the health care law and they have threatened to vote against raising the federal debt limit authorization, which will be necessary for the country to pay its bills.
But the president says he's having none of it.
"What I've said is I will not negotiate over the full faith and credit of the United States," he said to a crowd at a Ford manufacturing plant in Liberty, Mo., Friday. "I am not going to allow anyone to harm this country's reputation. I'm not going to allow them to inflict economic pain on millions of our own people just so they can make an ideological point."
Obama said the House is "focused on trying to mess with me, they're not focused on you."
"We can't just not pay our bills and just threatening to do that is the height of irresponsibility," he said, striking a campaign-like tone. "You don't have to threaten to blow things up just because you don't get your way."
Top conservatives are also wary that the House Republican tactics are wise. The Wall Street Journal editorialized Monday a potential government shutdown instigated out of their wish to repeal or maim Obamacare would backfire.
"Mr. Obama could spend his final two years going out in a blaze of liberal glory," the editorial said. "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. Marginal seats still matter for controlling Congress. The kamikazes could end up ensuring the return of all-Democratic rule."
Andrew Smith, political science professor at the University of New Hampshire, says Obama is historically well-positioned to win this fight.
"Presidents typically do better in their job approval rating when they have a Congress of the other party and running against Congress is a good thing to do," he says, adding that Obama's shrinking popularity has come from dwindling support among Democrats.
"When you start to lose your base and you see people starting to drift off, the best you can do is fight with a common enemy, and that's the Republicans," Smith says. "[In this case] Republicans are going to push something and then they are going to look for a face-saving deal in a conference committee. Realistically I think everybody understands that if you don't raise the debt limit it leads to really serious things."