Budget Standoff Tests Obama's Leadership

A look at President Obama's effort to drive the budget process to completion but also demonstrate leadership in the face of a government shutdown.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

All week, President Obama has spoken publicly about the need to avert a shutdown.

NPR's Ari Shapiro reports on how the president has managed his leadership role in this debate.

ARI SHAPIRO: Any middle school government student knows that passing a budget is the job of Congress, not the president. But this president has taken a very active role in pushing this budget deal up to the finish line. And sometimes when he talks about the process, his tone suggests that he feels like he's dealing with middle-schoolers.

President BARACK OBAMA: If they can't sort it out, then I want them back here tomorrow.

SHAPIRO: Or he sounds simply incredulous that negotiations have reached this point at all.

President OBAMA: Keep in mind, we're dealing with a budget that could've gotten done three months ago, could've gotten done two months ago, could've gotten done last month.

SHAPIRO: This budget funds the government that he was elected to lead. So Professor Martha Joynt Kumar of Towson University says the president has a real stake in bringing the parties to an agreement.

Professor MARTHA JOYNT KUMAR (Towson University): One of the things I think you can see in President Obama is that he has learned a lot about dealing with the Congress.

SHAPIRO: Kumar says President Obama got a little bogged down in legislation during the first two years, with healthcare and other fights in Congress. Now he holds fire until it matters and then he goes full bore.

Prof. KUMAR: I think that he learned from that, that you can't get involved in everything and that you have to drive the process - you can't let it drive you.

SHAPIRO: To Republicans, including House Speaker John Boehner, the president's decision to pull out the whip now seems entirely political, since Mr. Obama's own party failed to pass spending bills when the Democrats controlled Congress.

Representative JOHN BOEHNER (Republican, Ohio; Speaker of the House): Here we are, trying to clean up last year's mess.

SHAPIRO: Majority Leader Eric Cantor suggested that this budget standoff is a failure of leadership at the White House, not Congress.

Representative ERIC CANTOR (Republican, Virginia): We have put forward plans. We understand America is broke. And my question is: Mr. President, are you going to help us fix it?

SHAPIRO: Veteran political players say the president has no choice but to step in when things are this close to disaster. Jack Howard was on Newt Gingrich's staff during the last government shutdown in the mid-'90s. He thinks Mr. Obama should have stepped in earlier.

Mr. JACK HOWARD (Former Congressional Staffer): Well, the Clinton people were much more involved - the president himself as well as his staff behind closed doors in trying to reach an accommodation.

SHAPIRO: Howard has been warning friends on Capitol Hill that a shutdown is like a hurricane. No one can anticipate who it will demolish.

Mr. HOWARD: A hurricane, you know, at first there's a lot of drama and excitement and anticipation and things like that. But once the hurricane actually hits, it's every man for himself. All hell breaks loose. You've got people clinging to their roofs, hiding under the beds, and all that kind of thing.

SHAPIRO: The White House says the president has only ever had one goal in this process to reach consensus. Josh Earnest is deputy press secretary.

Mr. JOHN EARNEST (White House Deputy Press Secretary): For the president to signal his close involvement in this process is an indication that he is willing to roll up his sleeves and work to bring both sides together, and I think that it's - you know, to the extent that that can be helpful in getting the process done, and the president wants to make himself available to do that.

SHAPIRO: Even the White House has a point of no return though - things the president will not agree to. Earnest says that's another reason it's good that Mr. Obama is in the negotiating room.

Mr. EARNEST: As somebody who is - who ultimately has to sign the bill, he has some opinions about what the budget should look like.

SHAPIRO: Day after day, the president invites lawmakers to negotiate with him, at the White House, instead of on Capitol Hill on their own. And Professor Kumar of Towson thinks that actually makes a difference.

Prof. KUMAR: I think so. I think he can, especially when he's dealing with Boehner and Reid.

SHAPIRO: Just because he is the president?

Prof. KUMAR: Not just that he is the president, but he is the person who we all expect to lead, and people want to see that leadership.

SHAPIRO: This budget standoff is a test of everyone's leadership, including the president. And polls suggest that if it doesn't turn out well, everyone, including the president, could suffer politically.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, the White House.

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