Facing a showdown with congressional Republicans on the federal budget this month, President Obama has seen his economic campaign for the middle class get swamped by media coverage of the crisis in Syria.
The president intended to spend much of August, while lawmakers were on recess, building a case with the public for ending the so-called sequester budget cuts. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew and other top aides also put out the message that the president won’t negotiate with Republicans over the need to raise the nation’s borrowing limit this fall.
Mr. Obama did conduct a two-day bus tour through upstate New York and Pennsylvania in late August to highlight his spending proposals for jobs and education. But the administration’s response to Syria’s chemical-weapons attack, and the ongoing debate over implementation of the president’s health-care law, ended up getting more attention.
“Has he been trying to sell his budget priorities?” asked Republican pollster Jon McHenry, vice president of North Star Strategies. “I’m sure there are some folks in upstate New York who appreciate that he’s been out on the hustings. But there’s so much attention on Obamacare, defunding it or delaying it, and Syria on the other side, that I don’t know if anybody is getting any sense of his budget priorities.”
The president told veterans in mid-August that their benefits could be in jeopardy if Congress doesn’t agree with his approach to rescind the automatic budget cuts that took effect in March.
“It’s hurting our military,” Mr. Obama said. “Going forward, the best way to protect the VA care you have earned is to get rid of this sequester altogether.”
But Ron Haskins, a specialist on Congress at the liberal-leaning Brookings Institution, said there’s little evidence so far that Mr. Obama’s summertime campaign changed minds among Republicans.
“The Republican position hasn’t changed, and it’s hard for me to imagine that they’d give in on their basic position,” Mr. Haskins said. “If the president wants to remove the sequester, then he needs to propose alternative spending cuts and no tax increases. It won’t go through the House otherwise.”
Part of the challenge Mr. Obama faces is that the budget cuts of $85 billion haven’t produced the widespread hardship that the president and his aides predicted in the spring. The long lines predicted at airports and border crossings didn’t happen.
While many federal employees have been furloughed, some agencies avoided furloughs by shifting money around, and widespread breakdown in government services didn’t materialize. And that has strengthened the hand of Republicans’ at this month’s bargaining table.
“Americans don’t like sequestration, but so far at least, I don’t think it’s ignited anything really bad,” Mr. Haskins said. “People have been laid off, kids have lost Head Start benefits, but so far the [Republican] members seem to be willing to stick it out. The Republicans have a very principled position on this.”
An ominous sign for the budget talks occurred last week, when a group of Republican senators said they had reached an impasse with the White House on the deficit after months of private talks. One of the participants, Sen. Bob Corker, Tennessee Republican, said there was not enough common ground to continue.
The two sides were looking at a $500-billion-plus deficit deal to change how the sequester cuts would be applied to various federal programs. The White House said taxes remain a sticking point.
“The president has always been clear that closing tax loopholes that benefit the wealthy had to be part of any big deal,” a White House official said in a statement.
The collapse of talks raised concerns that Washington could be headed for a government shutdown. Mr. McHenry said his polling suggests that would be a mistake for the GOP.
“What we’re seeing in our polling and in the public polling is that Republicans are in fantastic shape when they’re talking about Obamacare, and that includes with independents, right up until the point where you start talking about the government,” he said. “At that point, it becomes more of an ideological issue where you start to lose some independents, and some Republicans, too.”
Mr. Haskins said if the GOP does precipitate a shutdown over the debt limit, “it’s going to really hurt the party.”
The Republican-led House and the White House are far apart on the levels to set government spending in the new fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1. Many negotiators expect a short-term measure to keep the government operating past Oct. 1.
But Mr. Obama has demanded a debt-ceiling increase with no conditions, a proposal that some Republicans oppose. House Republicans are pushing for cuts and budget reforms as conditions for raising the national borrowing limit.
There are only nine working days for the House this month, but Mr. Haskins said he expects a last-minute, short-term deal to keep the government running.
“They’ll have a continuing resolution and they won’t close the government and they’ll reach some kind of compromise on the debt ceiling,” he predicted. “How they get there, God only knows.”