Debt limit deal: Obama may have won, but victory is hardly lasting

Obama ended up conceding little to get Republicans to end the government shutdown and raise the debt limit, but all he won was a delay of a few months before the next (same) fight.

Charles Dharapak/AP
President Barack Obama speaks to reporters as he visits Martha's Table, which assists the poor and where furloughed federal employees are volunteering, in Washington, Monday.

As the partial government shutdown and debt ceiling crisis draw to a close, President Obama looks like a winner.

After all, Mr. Obama ended up not conceding much to get congressional Republicans to agree to renew funding of government operations and raise the limit on government borrowing authority.

Republican firebrands had set the bar very high, demanding the defunding or delaying of Obamacare – the president’s signature achievement – in exchange for a return to normal business.

But the Republican leadership couldn’t muster the votes, and had to settle for small concessions, including a minor tweak to Obamacare and the continuation of the across-the-board spending cuts known as sequestration. Both houses of Congress are expected to vote on the deal in time for the government to reopen Thursday or Friday.

Obama, in short, has delivered on his promise not to negotiate again over raising the debt limit, as he did in 2011. That deal resulted in $2 trillion in spending cuts over 10 years, including sequestration. Obama is to be commended for his discipline in staring down the Republicans, and staying on-message as Democrats united around him, analysts say.

But the victory this week is hardly lasting. Government funding has been extended only through Jan. 15, and the debt ceiling increased through Feb. 7. The deal also calls for a bipartisan House-Senate conference to come up with a long-term plan for deficit reduction by Dec. 13.

“It’s a symbolic victory, but also a Pyrrhic victory,” says political scientist Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville. “Obama won and the Republicans lost. It’s obvious. At the same time, what did he win? A brief extension, and we’re going to be having the same fight over and over and over again.”

“I call him the ‘Groundhog Day’ president,” Mr. Sabato says. “It’s Sonny and Cher at 6 a.m., every day.”

And yet Obama is talking as if he can pick up with his domestic policy agenda without skipping a beat. On Tuesday, he told a Spanish-language TV station in Los Angeles that he plans to renew his push for comprehensive immigration reform.

Once the fiscal crisis has been resolved, he said, “the day after I’m going to be pushing to say, call a vote on immigration reform."

That hardly seems credible, given Obama’s barely existent relationship with congressional Republicans, says Steven Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn.

“You have to build confidence through negotiations and ongoing relations over time,” he says. “I don’t see how this current crisis helped him build any relations that will move other legislative priorities forward.”

It may be that Obama’s message on immigration was more about wooing Latino voters than a sign that he actually believes he can make headway on a controversial issue that divides both parties, but especially Republicans. Obama won large majorities of the Latino vote in both of his presidential elections, and is now trying to lock down the growing Latino population for the Democratic column into the future.

In fact, Mr. Schier says, while Obama himself is done running for office, he may now see a glimmer of hope for a Democratic takeover of the House in the 2014 midterms, just over a year from now. Nonpartisan handicappers generally call a Democratic takeover an extreme longshot, given how few competitive districts there are, but with the House Republicans in disarray and their image in the tank, maybe it can no longer be ruled out.

The latest Gallup poll shows public approval of the Republican Party at an all-time low, 28 percent – a 10 point drop in just the last month.

But Obama’s own job approval numbers remain underwater, with his positives lower than his negatives.

“It’s hard to see a president with a job approval in the low 40s with a big surge that produces a big gain in House seats in his last midterm,” Schier says. “That would be historically amazing.”

The more likely modus operandi for the remainder of Obama’s presidency is that he continues to work around Congress, using his executive powers to effect domestic policy changes, though nothing as major as immigration reform.

“It becomes about appointments, vetoes, foreign policy, and speeches for the next three and a half years,” says Sabato.

But if the threat of government shutdown and default becomes an every-three-month thing, he adds, then it becomes a major issue in 2014. “And that’s only bad news for Republicans.”

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