For Obama and team, calm, not crisis, in fiscal battle
WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama is just seven days away from the first significant test of his second term as deep spending cuts loom, yet inside the White House a clear sense of confidence stands in contrast to the air of crisis that surrounded previous fiscal showdowns with Republicans.
The confrontation holds peril for both the president and Republicans. But for now, Obama believes he is acting from a greater position of strength, advisers say, pointing to several recent polls that show he holds an upper hand in the budget debate. Yet his standing would be at risk if the so-called sequester caused economic growth to collapse.
With little sign of movement as the March 1 deadline approaches, the president placed calls on Thursday to Speaker John A. Boehner and Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader, in an outreach that Republicans interpreted as aimed as much at fending off criticism for not reaching out sooner to congressional leaders as trying to open a new dialogue.
The calls came as the White House pursued a balancing act: use the power of the presidency to demonstrate the consequences of the $85 billion in across-the-board spending reductions while not allowing the fight to consume the administration and derail its second-term priorities.
As a result, the sense of urgency from earlier budget fights, which included all-night meetings and dueling news conferences at the White House and on Capitol Hill, have given way to more of a business-as-usual feeling in the West Wing. The budget debate is taking place alongside immigration and gun control discussions, rather than overtaking them.
It is a lesson, the president told his aides this week, drawn from the experience of back-to-back fights in 2011 over shutting down the government and raising the nation’s borrowing power. He has repeatedly personalized the argument and taken it outside Washington, including a trip on Tuesday to Newport News, Va., where the strong military presence will be affected if deep budget cuts are enacted.
The standoff with Republicans may not be a new one, but it is fundamentally different from the previous clashes that have ended with Obama victories. Several of Obama’s advisers who helped guide the administration through the previous fights are no longer at the White House.
The second-term team, led by the new chief of staff, Denis R. McDonough, is confronting its biggest challenge yet. While McDonough was in the West Wing for past budget battles, his portfolio was national security.
Other advisers dealing with the sequester are also new, including Miguel Rodriguez, the top liaison to Congress, who was meeting aides to congressional Republicans for the first time on Thursday. The positions of both sides seem to have hardened in recent weeks, rather than moved toward a compromise.