WASHINGTON – It’s rare when a president is given an opportunity to reboot in the middle of a term, but that’s what the end of the government shutdown has provided President Barack Obama. The question now is: What will he do with it?
The first clues came Thursday morning and produced an ambiguous answer. Speaking for the first time after signing the bill that reopened the federal government, Obama was both conciliatory and challenging, offering outreach to some and a scolding to others.
His calls for bipartisan cooperation were aimed at what he called the “responsible” Republicans who in the end yielded to the obvious — that their party could not allow itself to be blamed for the first U.S. debt default in history as well as the first federal shutdown in 17 years — and voted to reopen the government and extend its borrowing power.
Obama focused his anger, or exasperation, on those Republican hard-liners who were spurred on by the tea party wing of the GOP and whose tactics led the Republicans into a battle that they could not win and that significantly diminished the party in the eyes of many Americans.
Scorekeepers have done a running tally of winners and losers from this latest spectacle. On Thursday, Obama declared that there were no winners, but he knows better. He won this round, and his opposition is in more disarray than ever. That the opposition is now badly split was obvious from the votes in the Senate and the House on Wednesday night: A majority of House Republicans opposed the bill that reopened the government. Republicans have their own battles to fight.
Against a divided foe, with unity among his Democratic forces, Obama might now have an opportunity to lead in ways he has not been able to for most of this year and much of his first term. His success or failure is likely to depend on his ability to exploit those divisions in his and the country’s interests.
In some ways, Thursday was a third Inauguration Day for the president after another bitter campaign. His first inauguration was a moment of high hopes and great expectations amid the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Within months, the era of good feeling had given way to partisan infighting.
Obama was emboldened by his re-election. His second inaugural address was strikingly different from the first — more assertive, more impatient, more dismissive of those he viewed as obstructionist, more celebratory of the new American coalition that had given him a second term.
He had high hopes last winter for gun control and immigration, and even perhaps fixing the economy and striking a budget agreement. Gun control quickly died in the Senate. Immigration has been stalled in the House. Budget talks never got to the serious stage, despite two years of informal discussions among senators of both parties. The economy continues on its slow road to recovery.
That’s where things stood a few weeks ago, before House Speaker John Boehner yielded to the demands of his tea party members and brought about the shutdown and brinkmanship over the debt ceiling.
The speaker’s efforts expired with one last legislative gasp Tuesday, when he and other House leaders could not command a majority of their own members and were forced to abandon a planned floor vote on the measure. It was left to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to strike the deal that reopened the government.
Obama will continue to face unyielding opposition from the tea party Republicans in the House and the Senate. Sen. The key now is whether the president has a strategy to govern around them by winning support from what he called the responsible Republicans.
On Thursday, Obama called on Congress to focus on three priorities: the economy and the budget, immigration reform and passage of the farm bill. But he offered few specifics about what he will ask and what he will give. Nor is it clear whether he has a strategy to win the support of some Republicans.
Leon Panetta, who served in Obama’s Cabinet, in former President Bill Clinton’s White House and as a member of the House before that, told a breakfast held by the Wall Street Journal that past failures are no reason for the White House to disengage. “In this town, you’ve got to stay with it and stay at it,” he said.
It’s possible that the divisions in the GOP and the determination of its tea party wing to continue fighting against the health care law and the president’s agenda will doom any prospects for more effective governance for the duration of Obama’s term.
But the shutdown battle has given the president a fresh opportunity to show what he is prepared to do to produce the kind of bipartisanship he long has promised.