As President Barack Obama and Republicans maneuver to avoid taking the blame for the closing of the government, some of Obama’s top aides are drawing from a familiar playbook: the one they used during the last shutdown.
Five administration officials, including Treasury Secretary Jack Lew and budget director Sylvia Burwell, were central figures during the shutdowns of 1995 and 1996. That two-stage battle pitted a House Republican majority against Democratic President Bill Clinton and resulted in a public relations defeat for the Republicans.
Now, like Clinton, Obama is casting his Republican rivals as partisan warriors willing to put the country’s economic future at risk to score political points with their base.
While Clinton chided Republicans for putting “ideology ahead of common sense” in a 1995 address, Obama today accused House Republicans of waging an “ideological crusade” that threatens the entire economy.
“One faction of one party in one House of Congress in one branch of government shut down major parts of the government, all because they didn’t like one law,” he said.
He sought to reinforce for voters who is to blame in the standoff, calling it a “Republican shutdown.”
“There are certainly some echoes in the message,” said Leon Panetta, Obama’s former defense secretary who was Clinton’s chief of staff during the shutdowns. “We learned some very hard lessons.”
Among the other veterans of the Clinton White House who are now Obama advisers are Gene Sperling, director of the National Economic Council -- a post he held under Clinton -- as well as Bruce Reed, a former Clinton domestic policy adviser who’s now chief of staff to Vice President Joe Biden, and communications chief Jen Palmieri, who was deputy press secretary.
White House officials say the president plans to use various opportunities this week to describe the tangible damage of a shutdown, though there are no plans for a prime-time address.
It’s a strategy that mimics the one used by Mike McCurry, Clinton’s onetime press secretary who’s now a communications consultant at Public Strategies Washington Inc. in Washington.
McCurry recalled bringing deputy budget director John Koskinen -- known as “Mr. Shutdown” at the agency -- to the White House briefing room almost daily to drive home the personal costs of the government closure.
And like Clinton, Obama has also touted his progress in reducing the federal budget deficit in an effort to take away a Republican argument that could resonate with voters.
Both presidents delivered their messages amid middling approval ratings and a constant barrage of jabs from Republican opponents attacking everything from the time they spent on the golf course to their foreign policy decisions.
Forty-five percent of voters approve of the job Obama is doing as president and 49 percent disapprove, according to a Bloomberg National Poll conducted last month. In October 1995, shortly before the shutdown, Clinton’s approval rating was at 46 percent, according to Gallup.
No one was sure how the shutdowns of the 1990s would play politically, McCurry recalled.
“Day by day and hour by hour we had no idea whether we were going to come out ahead,” said McCurry. “It was mildly surprising to some people inside the White House that it turned out to be a political win for President Clinton.”
Public opinion eventually swung toward the president, reaching 54 percent by March 1996 and he was re-elected that November.
“I advised all my clients it was a really bad idea to shut down the government, and I still think it’s a bad idea,” said Oklahoma Republican Representative Tom Cole, who counseled House Republicans on strategy as a political consultant during the 1995 shutdown. “The consequences are potentially much worse.”
White House officials are keeping a close eye on their polling numbers and hoping for a similar result. A CNN/ORC poll released yesterday found that 69 percent of Americans say they think Republicans in Congress are acting like “spoiled children” in this fiscal fight. Another 46 percent say they’d blame Republicans more for a shutdown, according to the poll, which has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points. Forty-seven percent said Obama was acting like a spoiled child, the Sept. 27-29 poll showed.
“A lot of people here remember” what happened in 1995 and 1996, White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters yesterday. “But obviously this is a new and different time.”
White House aides say the situation is far more dangerous now. Back then the dispute was over Medicare spending and took place in the context of broader bipartisan talks about how to balance the budget. Even as Clinton chided Congress daily, he was deeply engaged in negotiations with then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, both Republicans.
Today, Republicans are pushing to defund or delay the health-care law that is Obama’s signature legislative achievement and holding up a standard extension of government funding. And there are no substantive talks -- not even back-channel negotiations -- going on between the White House and Republicans. Obama and House Speaker John Boehner spoke for 10 minutes last night, according to White House aides, their first conversation in days.
The last shutdown “was about numbers; this one is about ideology,” said former Ohio Republican Congressman Steve LaTourette, who has warned that Republicans could once again pay a political price.
Politically, Gingrich also gave Clinton a target at which to direct public anger. The House speaker, feeding off the energy of the 1994 win that swept Republicans to power in Congress, drove the shutdown strategy -- commanding lieutenants, including Boehner, to keep the caucus united.
It was easy to make Gingrich the face of the shutdown, recalled McCurry. Gingrich didn’t help himself with his suggestion that he triggered the shutdown out of anger toward Clinton for what he said was discourteous treatment aboard Air Force One. A Nov. 16, 1995, New York Daily News cover depicted Gingrich as a tantrum-throwing toddler with the headline “CRY BABY.”
Today, a contingent of rank-and-file Republicans is ignoring the leadership’s pleas, giving Democrats no central figure to blame for the shutdown.
“It’s hard to turn Boehner into the villain if you’re a Democrat because it looks like he’s not the guy in charge,” said McCurry.
It also makes it tougher to negotiate, Sperling said today in an interview.
“One side not exerting control over their own,” he said, “makes it very difficult to work out an agreement.”
Congressional approval is at a low point: Thirty percent approved of Congress in September 1995, according to polling by Gallup and CNN, compared with 10 percent now, according to the CNN/ORC poll. Many voters have come to expect stalemates and crises from Congress.
“One of the things that worries me most is the fact that so many people are saying we’ve been through this so many times,” said former Senator Ted Kaufman, a longtime chief of staff to then-Senator Biden. “I really have a feeling that people are a little sanguine about it happening.”
The next big fight will be over the debt ceiling. The federal government is forecast to hit the $16.7 trillion borrowing limit on Oct. 17. Without congressional action, the government could find itself unable to make payments, possibly triggering a default.
“People don’t think we’re ever going to go down the road of defaulting on the debt,” BlackRock Inc. managing director Rick Rieder, who oversees $650 billion at the world’s biggest asset manager, said in an interview with Bloomberg Television yesterday. “We’ve seen this movie before.”
Yet the economic impact of a shutdown could be far worse than in 1995 and 1996, given that the economy is still recovering from the recession. A shutdown, said Rieder, could shake consumer confidence and curb corporate capital expenditures, which would ultimately hit jobs.
“It’s a little bit like war,” said Panetta. “Sometimes people with short memories get a little blustery and forget there’s a price to be paid.”