WASHINGTON -- The last time the federal government shut down over a budget impasse in the winter of 1995-96 lawmakers on Capitol Hill couldnt get President Bill Clinton to leave the negotiating table. This time, lawmakers cant get President Barack Obama to join in.
Obama has never relished the back-and-forth of detailed policy negotiations. But with public opinion on his side and no re-election campaign ahead, theres even less incentive for him to engage in fiscal talks this time around, especially after failing at his previous attempts to cut a deal with House Republicans.
Theres also little reason to engage in a full-blown negotiation now when another fight arguably a much bigger one looms in the coming weeks. The government is expected to exhaust its borrowing authority in mid-October, threatening a default for the first time in history unless Congress acts.
His hands-off approach is perfectly understandable, said William Galston, a former policy adviser to Clinton whos a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a center-left policy research center. Why should he get involved in a congressional spat?
Obama has remained largely on the sidelines.
He says he will not negotiate with congressional leaders until after they reopen the government at current spending levels, and repeatedly blames House Republicans for the shutdown that has slashed federal services and furloughed hundreds of thousands of employees.
Presidents have long differed in their approaches. Some, such as Obama and George W. Bush, are content to leave the schmoozing and lobbying of lawmakers to their aides. Others, such as Clinton or Lyndon B. Johnson, thrived on it.
Stephen J. Wayne, a Georgetown University professor specializing in presidential leadership, said Obamas attempt in 2011 to work out a deal with House Speaker John Boehner a so-called grand bargain that would have resulted in $4 trillion in savings over a decade was the exception, not the rule.
Its certainly not his style, Wayne said. He doesnt like trench warfare. He would much rather use the bully pulpit.
Last year, Obama and Boehner, R-Ohio, reluctantly met again briefly to try to negotiate a last-minute deal on taxes. But in the final hours, Obama dispatched his Mr. Fix It Vice President Joe Biden, a Senate veteran and old-school politician to Capitol Hill to hammer out a compromise with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
Obama was furious when Boehner walked away from their talks in 2011, and to a lesser extent in 2012, after the speaker ran into opposition from conservative House Republicans who wanted more spending cuts and fewer taxes. The president and his allies speak often of the failed 2011 talks as a turning point in a rocky relationship, saying Obama cant trust Boehner to deliver results.
Where Clinton had a foil in then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Obama does not have a single person to negotiate with on the budget. Why is he going to negotiate with Boehner, who doesnt have control of the problem? said Democratic political consultant Drew Lieberman.
Obama told CNBC this week that hes bent over backwards to work with Republicans, referring to his talks with Boehner as well as a series of dinners this year, primarily with Senate Republicans, to try to strike a new grand bargain. But much like the talks with the speaker, the dinners with senators ended this summer with no deal.