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President Barack Obama promised to change Washington’s ways. Yet he is as caught up in them as ever.
It was just at the start of this week that Obama launched his re-election bid with a sunny video of real people talking about their hopes and needs. It was the very image of life outside Washington politics.
By week’s end, Obama was mired in budget negotiations, canceling trips and scrambling to hold off a government shutdown that would surely erode the public’s faith in his leadership.
That’s the messy business of governing. And this is how it is going to be this time around for incumbent Obama.
Beyond the vision for economic competitiveness he wants to talk about, Obama is seeking a second term while having to engage in the gritty, frustrating process of governing a deeply divided government. He got bogged down in legislative tactics in his first two years, even when he won fights like health care, and is now trying to avoid all that.
Then came this test of leadership. The White House says Obama ultimately got the compromise he wanted — a bill of spending cuts that he supported without having to gut his priorities or swallow policy changes he could not accept. When it all finally came together, the administration offered it up as an example of cooperation under the highest stress.
But it was an exhausting process that left people wondering why the government was somehow on the brink of debacle.
This is change?
The showdown serves as a reminder that for all the powers that come with the presidency, one of the perils is an agenda you cannot control. Crises like Libya, Egypt, Japan’s earthquake, Iraq and Afghanistan all demand his attention.
In this case, the new House Republican majority, led by Speaker John Boehner, turned a must-pass budget bill into a political chance to give voice to frustrated voters and tea party conservatives who demanded spending cuts. And suddenly Washington was back in brinksmanship mode again, where nothing gets done until deadline. And sometimes not even then.
In public, Obama tried to keep it at arm’s length.
“I shouldn’t have to oversee a process in which Congress deals with last year’s budget,” Obama said as the time got short this week.
But in fact he was involved up to his neck.
It was Obama’s veto threat that made clear he would not accept the scope of spending cuts Republicans wanted. It was Obama who said he would accept no more short-term bills to keep the government afloat for a couple weeks at a time unless there was a broader deal in hand. And it was Obama who kept saying it was time for leaders to act like grown-ups.
The White House said his strategy was to stay behind the scenes, work the phones and let his senior aides do the negotiating. That hard-to-see engagement provided a huge opening for Republicans to question his leadership. And it led to rumblings from frustrated lawmakers in his own Democratic Party who wanted Obama to openly attack the cuts Republicans wanted.
The White House figured it would take those hits. In the midst of this conflict and other challenges, a Gallup poll in late March found that an eroding number of people said Obama was a strong and decisive leader: A little more than half of those polled, down from 60 percent one year ago and 73 percent two years ago.
The West Wing thinking was that a better result would come if Obama not try to overheat the issue. They also believed that people across the nation were worried about gas prices, not a messy political squabble over a spending bill and that the voters didn’t hire Obama to be a legislator. Obama would go public when it meant the most.
The vocal version of the president emerged on Tuesday.
He said Americans don’t want games but rather results, the pragmatic approach. That’s the style White House strategists believe will bring back the election-turning independents to Obama. He spoke like a leader who had world troubles on his mind and demanded feuding lawmakers to keep working.
“There are some things we can’t control,” he said. “We can’t control earthquakes; we can’t control tsunamis; we can’t control uprisings on the other side of the world. What we can control is our capacity to have a reasoned, fair conversation between the parties and get the business of the American people done.”
But it wasn’t getting done, and his voice was not the only one setting the tone.
“The president isn’t leading,” Boehner said Wednesday. “He didn’t lead on last year’s budget, and he clearly is not leading on this year’s budget.”
Obama met with Boehner and Reid four times in the White House across the week. He kept his plans to travel to the Philadelphia area on Wednesday to talk about energy, looking comfortable and almost carefree as he laughed with workers at a wind-turbine company about their families and their cars.
Yet by Friday, Washington had sucked him back in. He canceled a trip to Indianapolis, scrapping the attention he wanted to give to clean energy.
And then he jettisoned a scheduled weekend getaway with his family to Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia while he kept in touch with Boehner and Reid.
While striving to avoid a shutdown, Obama’s team privately thought they would come out OK in the public’s mind if it came to that.
The thinking was that the president had presented a reasonable case of agreeing to spending cuts without going too far, and that people would frown upon Republicans if the government stopped fully running over an unrelated policy conflict like abortion.
One Gallup poll found that 58 percent of adults, and 60 percent of independents, favored a budget compromise over a shutdown.
But another reality lurked for Obama.
The politics-saturated budget battle graphically demonstrates how government is not supposed to operate. No matter who is to blame, all will be blamed.
The everyday Americans Obama talks about so often just want a Washington that works. That means staying open for business.
And for incumbents with opponents who run the House, it can mean getting encumbered by Washington, once again.
White House Correspondent Ben Feller has covered the Bush and Obama presidencies for The Associated Press.
Copyright © 2011 The Associated Press