President Obama said he wouldn’t negotiate with Republicans over raising the debt limit and funding the government, and he never really needed to pick up the phone. The deal that passed both houses of Congress Wednesday achieves both goals, with minuscule concessions from the president’s side. In the crude analogy of two cars playing chicken, the president’s opponents pulled over. After 16 days of a government shutdown, the Republican Party has achieved its lowest approval ratings in recorded history, the president’s health care plan is unscathed, and the GOP’s civil war still roars. Proof was on the cable television split-screens. As Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was announcing the bipartisan deal that ended the standoff, Sen. Ted Cruz was holding his own press conference denouncing the Senate establishment that had caved.
It was possible to see the seeds of this outcome just before Obama’s second term started. The president, no longer facing re-election, had written off negotiating with GOP leaders. He and his aides resolved that future budget negotiations would be founded on a hard line. If he was going to burnish his legacy, it was most likely to happen through confrontation, not conciliation. Following that vector, the president has prevailed in this round and defended his signature legislative achievement.
Obama won office preaching a message of a new kind of bipartisanship, but his domestic legacy will be defined by his partisan victories: passage of the 2009 stimulus bill, the Affordable Care Act, and victory in the shutdown fight of 2013.