Victorious generals demand unconditional surrender from their foes only after they defeat them on the battlefield. President Obama, winner of no such victories, imagines he's Napoleon on his way back from Austerlitz, refusing to take anything from his rivals but laurels. "Why would I give them concessions now to avoid [a government default]?" the president asked on Tuesday. He won't negotiate until after the other side has given him everything he wants. No wonder Mr. Obama is losing the battle of public opinion.
A new Associated Press poll suggests the White House strategy of blaming Republicans for the government-funding impasse is not working as planned. Political operatives at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue have mistaken the public's low regard of Congress for support of the president. H.L. Mencken famously said of Congress that "it consists of one third, more or less, scoundrels; two thirds, more or less, idiots; and three thirds, more or less, poltroons." The public apparently agrees today. Only 5 percent like Congress. Working from the bottom of public opinion gives House Speaker John A. Boehner the luxury of having nothing to lose by holding steady.
Mr. Obama, on the other hand, began the year with 54 percent of voters on his side. Since the shutdown, 17 percent have abandoned him. A majority think Mr. Obama hasn't negotiated, at all or enough. Sixty-two percent disagree with the way the Democrats handle the deficit, which is to say, most people realize spending more money won't create a surplus. Since 81 percent haven't felt any effects of the shutdown, many of them are not likely to care very much how it's resolved.
The Republicans are clearly not winning the battle of public opinion. It's just that Mr. Obama isn't building himself up by tearing others down. That might work in Chicago, but the national stage is a more demanding venue. The country doesn't want to hear their president say things like, "I'm going to repeat it: There will be no negotiations over this."
Mr. Obama insists he has no duty to find a middle ground because he won the election — he's the president, and the rest of us are not. "Last November," he said last week, "voters rejected the presidential candidate [who] ran on a platform to repeal [Obamacare]."
The Founding Fathers were wise enough to understand that executive power might go to a president's head. That's why the Constitution granted the legislative and judicial branches equal authority with the executive. This gives the House of Representatives the special role of taking the lead on spending bills. Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts explained in that early day that the House is "more immediately the representatives of the people" and thus the people's representatives "ought to hold the purse-strings."
In this formula, still not repealed, the people of 2013 have entrusted the purse strings to Republicans, not to Mr. Obama. The Tea Party won big in 2010 and retained a sizable majority in the House in 2012 because "the people" are tired of Washington's big-spending ways. They said so in this latest poll, with 60 percent expressing a desire for a smaller government that does less.
Public opinion is often fickle. The longer Mr. Obama maintains his stubborn pout, what he thought would be an easy win could turn out to be his Waterloo.