WASHINGTON (Reuters) - For President Barack Obama, the U.S. government shutdown that rippled across the country on Tuesday is the “Republican shutdown” and he is working hard to see that the name sticks to his political opponents.
“We may not know the full impact of this Republican shutdown for some time,” he said in the White House Rose Garden, with 12 Americans gathered behind him brought in to illustrate the benefits of his signature healthcare law, popularly known as “Obamacare.”
Also unknown: The full impact of the shutdown on Obama himself.
There is a recognition inside and outside of the White House that the president could eventually catch some of the public anger from a prolonged shutdown, especially if the U.S. economy takes a hit from the idling of hundreds of thousands of government workers.
For now, Obama is following the model used by Democratic President Bill Clinton during the 1995 and 1996 shutdowns that he encountered: Lay the blame at the feet of Republicans.
Polls have consistently shown that Americans oppose the Republicans’ strategy linking continued funding of the government with defunding or delaying Obamacare.
One potential flaw in the Obama strategy, said former Clinton White House press secretary Mike McCurry, is that Clinton was more popular at that point than Obama is now and the U.S. economy was in better shape in the mid-1990s than now.
“We weren’t confident that Clinton was going to avoid the blame,” said McCurry. “I remember day in and day out being very concerned that this was going to produce a reaction in which all sides got equal blame. We had no real confidence that we were going to come out on the winning end of things.”
As for the Obama White House, McCurry said: “They have to be cautious. They can’t assume they come out at the same place as Clinton did. But if they manage their communications effectively and remind people what the purpose of the fight is all about, they come out ahead.”
White House officials see a number of advantages that Obama holds over Republicans in the House of Representatives. Every Democratic senator is united behind the idea of not shutting down the healthcare law, and both Democrats and Republicans see the need to avoid damaging the U.S. economy.
Obama is coming under heavy criticism from Republicans for refusing to negotiate with them over the healthcare law. But Obama is under equal pressure from Democratic loyalists to protect the central achievement of his first term, extending health insurance to millions of Americans who have been without.
Pressed on why Obama does not sit down with his opponents, White House officials say that could just result in more demands.
“Well, if they get what they want in order to reopen the government or not default for a few months or a few weeks, next they’ll say, ‘OK, undo the increase in tax rates for the wealthiest of Americans, for millionaires and billionaires,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said. “That could be next.”
Obama advisers stress that Obama is willing to entertain some tweaks to the healthcare law, but only outside of the budget stalemate, not with “a gun pointed to your head,” said White House communications adviser Jennifer Palmieri.
As a consequence, the White House seems content to let the shutdown play out for a while and wait for Republicans to feel heat from the public.
“I think if you’re the White House, you just sit back and watch,” Robert Gibbs, a former Obama White House press secretary, said on MSNBC.
Part of the opposition to Obama stems from the way the original healthcare law was drawn up and approved by a Congress controlled by Democrats at the time.
Republicans in the House of Representatives view the healthcare law as a dangerous extension of government power.
Opponents have been further aroused by glitches and delays in the new program’s rollout, which they see as a sign that it is hopelessly flawed.
“I think that’s part of it,” said Republican strategist Ed Rollins. “It’s turning out to be far more difficult to implement than anybody anticipated. Why not put it off for a year and fix it?”
The current fight is sure to have an impact on whether Democrats or Republicans are able to pick up seats in November 2014 congressional elections.
Normally the party that does not hold the White House, in this case the Republicans, has an advantage in midterm elections.
“The political benefits I don’t think are as great for the president as some might expect,” said Andy Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center. “And the potential political losses for Republicans aren’t necessarily as great.”
Reporting by Steve Holland. Editing by Fred Barbash and Peter Cooney