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Obama vs. Congress

A lot of smart people I’ve spoken with in the last 12 hours are betting a government shutdown will take place. Count me skeptical. I simply don’t believe Speaker Boehner, who has been quite impressive since taking power in January, will allow a shutdown to occur based on a few riders and one-half of one percent of a $3.5 trillion budget. There is far too much for Republicans to lose and far too little for them to gain. My guess is that he’ll fight to the last hour, and maybe to the last minute—but then the outline of a deal will be struck and a shutdown will be averted.

Whether or not I’m right, one thing to notice is how President Obama has positioned himself in this showdown, which may foreshadow his 2012 re-election strategy. He is framing the debate not simply as a partisan clash but as an institutional one. It’s not simply Obama versus Republicans; it’s also the president versus Congress—a matchup Obama is bound to win.

Obama is adopting a pose that comes naturally to him: portraying the differences as petty while he hovers above it all. He (he president) is the exasperated and impatient parent of unruly and undisciplined children (Congress). One can overhear the strategy in Obama’s rhetoric: a deal should have been struck months ago; serious people should be able to reach a compromise; let’s gone on with the serious business of the nation. And so forth and so on.

It’s not a bad strategy. The favorability ratings for Congress are near record lows, and going after Congress as an institution rather than simply going after Republicans keeps the president from looking overly partisan—a huge turn-off to independent voters. And independent voters are the bloc Obama is most in need of winning back. This is the way by which he hopes to reclaim, at least in part, some of the magic of the 2008 election, when he offered himself as a post-partisan, unifying figure. I’m not sure the approach will work, but it’s politically smart of Obama to try it.