The president appears to have decided he was better off stepping back from negotiations and public comments, leaving Congress to sort out the deal to reopen the government and avoid default.
WASHINGTON — As the battle over the government shutdown and debt ceiling barreled toward a culminating point this week, President Obama stepped back from a debate that seemed to grow more chaotic by the day.
After two weeks of vowing that he would not negotiate with Republicans or pay them "a ransom" to "do their job," Obama appeared to decide that keeping an arms-length from the fight was the best strategy with an even bigger budget battle on the horizon.
On Thursday, he called on his allies and adversaries to look past the punditry that has declared him the winner in this battle and the Republicans losers.
"Let's be clear, there are no winners here," Obama said. "The last few weeks have inflicted completely unnecessary damage to our economy. We don't know the full scope of it yet, but every analyst out there believes it slowed our growth."
Even before Congress voted to reopen a shuttered federal government and raise the debt ceiling Wednesday night, Obama began discarding some of the sharper rhetorical darts and tried to melt into the background as the Republican leadership grappled with the reality that they would have to blink first.
When the president addressed reporters Wednesday night shortly after the Senate voted, he thanked Republican and Democratic leaders for ending the impasse and spoke in conciliatory terms.
"I am eager to work with anybody — Democrat or Republican, House or Senate members — on any idea that will grow our economy, create new jobs, strengthen the middle class, and get our fiscal house in order for the long term," Obama said. "I've never believed that Democrats have a monopoly on good ideas. And despite the differences over the issue of shutting down our government, I'm convinced that Democrats and Republicans can work together to make progress for America."
The president began shifting toward a longer view early in the week.
On Monday, he commiserated with furloughed federal workers at a Washington food pantry. Later that day, he scrapped a scheduled meeting with the four top congressional leaders when it appeared talks between Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell were making headway — keeping the onus on Congress.
The following day he made only a glancing reference to the crisis at his only public appearance for the day — a ceremony to award former U.S. Army Capt. William Swenson the Medal of Honor — when he suggested that Washington could learn something from the young officer's selfless action.
Throughout the debate, White House officials insisted that Obama would not negotiate, even as he hosted Republican leadership for talks at the White House during the shutdown.
And unlike the past two standoffs over fiscal issues earlier in his administration, Obama did not dispatch Vice President Biden — who some Democrats groused gave up too much to McConnell in the earlier talks — to Capitol Hill.
Instead, Obama had White House chief of staff Denis McDonough and his senior adviser Rob Nabors serve as point men to deal with Congress during the crisis.
"It was a smart move to take a hands-off approach — particularly since the American people weren't going to be particularly thrilled with the outcome anyway," said Allan Lichtman, an expert on the American presidency at American University.
In the end, Obama more or less stuck to his guns and gave little to the Republicans — whose starting negotiating point included defunding implementation of the president's signature health care law — for agreeing to reopen the government or extending the borrowing authority through Feb. 7.
The agreement extends spending levels that were set in the 2011 fiscal battle through Jan. 15. The deal also sets a mid-December deadline for congressional budget negotiators to report on their efforts to find solutions to longer-term fiscal issues. Those talks will be led by Sen. Patty Murray D-Wash., and Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis.
The only change to the health care law Republicans were able to extract was minor: The administration will have to verify the incomes of individuals who receive federal subsidies to help pay for health insurance. McConnell offered that the deal was "far less than many of us hoped for, quite frankly, but far better than what some had sought."
Still, the White House wasn't exactly spiking the football in the end zone.
"There is a lot of work ahead of us, including our need to earn back the trust of the American people that has been lost over the last few weeks," Obama said.
Obama's hands-off approach may have worked for this round in part because his end goal was straight forward: sending the message that Republicans would not win concessions from him by shuttering government or threatening default.
It required him "to draw a line in the sand and then stand back and tell Congress that's where the line in the sand was," explained Jonathan Cowan, a former Clinton administration official and president of the centrist Democratic group the Third Way.
But in his next fiscal battle, Obama will have to push not only Republicans, but also the left-wing of his own party on difficult issues like entitlement and tax reform if there is any chance for a big legacy-setting budget deal that he desires.
"It may be that the president played it right in this round by having an intentionally more hands-off strategy," Cowan said. "But in the next round, it's imperative that President Obama call for and push aggressively for a big economic bargain."