Analysis: Obama shifts to play budget dealmaker, avoid blame

By Caren Bohan and Jeff Mason

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama's late entry into a budget battle that could shut the government marks an attempt both to play dealmaker and avoid blame if Republicans and Democrats fail to forge agreement in time.

During a rare meeting with party leaders on Tuesday, Obama aimed to break a logjam over how to cut spending by $33 billion in this year's budget.

The meeting did not produce a breakthrough but in a surprise appearance before reporters afterwards Obama pledged to convene further meetings and negotiate "for as long as possible to get this resolved."

Obama's intervention marked a turning point after weeks of keeping a low-profile in the spending dispute, drawing criticism from his own supporters who wanted him to weigh in.

"It is crunch time. He is becoming more visible," an administration official said.

It is a strategy he has used before, with some success. Late last year, he intervened in a congressional stand-off over tax rates and won agreement that allowed him to claim victory for keeping rates for all Americans low.

"The strategy follows the political logic of President Obama's whole career, which is to avoid messy battles which make you appear to be a partisan," said Ross Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University.

"If presidential muscle is used, do it behind the scenes. And above all, appear to be a high-minded and impartial arbiter who negotiates compromises and is distinguished from the brawling demagogues in Congress."

This time, the stakes are higher with the threat of a full government shutdown that, if it dragged on, could hurt the fragile U.S. economic recovery.

Obama is drawing lessons from former President Bill Clinton's playbook. Clinton struck political gold when the American public blamed Republicans for a government shutdown during his first term.

This time, however, either side could get the blame if U.S. agencies shut their doors at the close of Friday, forcing hundreds of thousands of federal workers to stay home.

"If the public gets angry with a blow-up over the budget and a shutdown, the president needs to be able to say, at a minimum, that he tried," said Julian Zelizer, history professor at Princeton University. "He wants to avoid having the anger that flowed to Republicans in 1995-1996 focus on him."


White House officials say the president has been involved all along, being briefed and making calls, while Vice President Joe Biden led the charge to hash out a deal with his former congressional colleagues.

"The president has made a handful of brief phone calls to the speaker - nothing substantive, just checking in," one Republican source said. "Obviously the White House tagged the vice president to be the liaison to the House. He too has mostly engaged via the occasional phone call."

The White House is loath to escalate a battle over a six-month spending bill.

Obama's aides say raising the temperature over such a short-term issue could make it even harder to tackle issues that they consider more important to the country's fiscal future, such as reforming government-run health and retirement programs and overhauling the U.S. tax code.

Obama will face greater pressure to enter the fray when those issues enter the spotlight.

He left many budget hawks frustrated when he delivered his State of the Union address in January. He also declined to embrace the findings of a panel he appointed a year ago that offered a plan to cut the debt by $4 trillion over 10 years.

"It would be a nice thing (for Obama) to appear to be taking charge of something," said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a Republican former director of the Congressional Budget Office who is now with the conservative American Action Forum.

(Editing by David Storey)