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Analysis: So much for change coming to Washington

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BEN FELLER
April 10, 2011
— President Barack Obama promised to change Washington's ways. Yet he's as caught up in them as ever.

As the week began, Obama kicked off his re-election bid with a sunny video of people talking about their hopes and needs, the very image of life outside Washington politics.


By week's end, Obama was mired in budget negotiations, canceling trips and scrambling to stave off a government shutdown that could only undermine the public's faith in his leadership.


It was the messy business of governing, and how it's going to be in this long campaign for incumbent Obama.


Beyond the vision for economic competitiveness he wants to talk about, Obama is chasing a second term while trying to make a deeply divided government work. He got bogged down in legislative tactics in his first two years, even when he won fights on health care and other issues.


The goal now is to avoid all that. He can't.


In this test of leadership, the White House says Obama wrangled the budget compromise he wanted, spending cuts he supported without shelving his priorities or accepting unacceptable policy changes.


His administration portrayed it as an example of bipartisan cooperation of the highest stakes.


Yet the government was on the brink of closing, and many people were wondering how that could happen, or why.


This is change?


The showdown was a reminder that for all a president's powers, there's much beyond control. Think Libya, Egypt, Japan's earthquake, not to mention Iraq and Afghanistan.


In this case, the new House Republican majority, led by Speaker John Boehner, seized on a must-pass budget bill to give voice to frustrated voters and tea party conservatives who demanded spending cuts.


It was brinksmanship mode again in the capital, where nothing gets done until the deadline. Sometimes not even then.


In public, Obama tried to keep it at arm's length.


"I shouldn't have to oversee a process in which Congress deals with last year's budget," Obama said as the time got short this week.


In fact, he was up to his neck in it.


Obama used a veto threat to make clear he would not accept the scope of GOP spending cuts. He said he would accept no more temporary extensions to keep the government running for a few weeks at a time unless there was a broader deal in hand. He kept saying leaders had to act like grown-ups.


The White House said his strategy was to stay behind the scenes, work the phones and let his senior aides do the negotiating. That type of role provided an opening for Republicans to question his leadership. It also led to rumblings from frustrated lawmakers in his own party who wanted the president to openly attack the cuts Republicans wanted.


The White House figured it would take those hits. It did.


A Gallup poll in late March found declining numbers of people who said Obama was a strong and decisive leader: a little more than half of those polled, compared with 60 percent one year ago and 73 percent two years ago.


The White House believed that a better result would come if Obama didn't try to overheat the issue. Officials believed that people were worried about gas prices, not a spending squabble and that voters didn't hire Obama to be a legislator.


Obama would go public when it meant the most.


That was Tuesday. The president suddenly got vocal.


He said Americans didn't want games but results. The pragmatic approach is what White House strategists believe will bring back the election-turning independents to Obama.


"There are some things we can't control," he said. "We can't control earthquakes; we can't control tsunamis; we can't control uprisings on the other side of the world. What we can control is our capacity to have a reasoned, fair conversation between the parties and get the business of the American people done."


But it wasn't getting done, and his voice was not the only one setting the tone.


"The president isn't leading," Boehner said Wednesday. "He didn't lead on last year's budget, and he clearly is not leading on this year's budget."


Obama met with Boehner and Reid four times in the White House during the week. He still went to the Philadelphia area Wednesday to talk about energy. He looked comfortable, almost carefree, as he laughed with workers at a wind-turbine company about their families and their cars.


But Washington had sucked him back in. By Friday, he canceled a trip to Indianapolis, scrapping the attention he wanted to give to clean energy.


He scrapped a weekend getaway with his family to Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia.


While working to avoid a shutdown, Obama's team thought the White House would come out OK in the public's mind if it came to that.


The thinking was that the president had presented a reasonable case of agreeing to spending cuts without going too far, and that people would be angry with Republicans if the government closed up partially over a policy disagreement about abortion.


Only when the standoff grew most dire did it end.


But the budget mess showed how government isn't supposed to operate. No matter who's to blame, all will be, including a president running for election this time from inside Washington's ways.


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EDITOR'S NOTE White House Correspondent Ben Feller has covered the Bush and Obama presidencies for The Associated Press.



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