Doug Mills/The New York Times
President Obama has now assumed the role of mediator in chief in the efforts to avoid a government shutdown.
Over the course of 24 hours and three separate meetings, Mr. Obama has cast himself as the sober one in the room, prodding the two sides to get past their dispute — even though he is a key player on one of them.
“What I’ve said to the speaker and what I’ve said to Harry Reid is, because the machinery of the shutdown is necessarily starting to move, I expect an answer in the morning,” Mr. Obama told reporters moments after the third negotiation session broke up Thursday night.
Negotiators offered few details of the back-and-forth behind the closed doors inside the West Wing. But afterward, Mr. Obama used language that suggests that he sees himself more as a bridge between the warring political parties than an active participant in the high-stakes discussions.
There are, he said, “still a few issues that are outstanding. They’re difficult issues. They’re important to both sides. And so I’m not yet prepared to express wild optimism. But I think we are further along today than we were yesterday.”
Positions on both sides appear to have hardened overnight. But as far as the president’s role is concerned, it is a pattern that is becoming a regular one: He keeps his distance during long-running legislative disputes, largely reserving both his intense personal involvement and his imposing real estate — the White House and the Oval Office — for the final days or hours.
The president used that approach during the lame-duck session of Congress last December, when he negotiated with Republicans to seek a compromises on a bill that extended the Bush-era tax cuts. In a mid-December press conference, Mr. Obama talked about his negotiations with Republicans and the outrage expressed by many Democrats on Capitol Hill who opposed the deal.
“I recognize that folks on both sides of the political spectrum are unhappy with certain parts of the package, and I understand those concerns. I share some of them,” Mr. Obama said, positioning himself squarely in the middle of the dispute. “But that’s the nature of compromise — sacrificing something that each of us cares about to move forward on what matters to all of us.”
He also convened closed-door meetings of Democratic lawmakers at the White House during the final, difficult negotiations over his health care legislation last year. As those discussions progressed, Mr. Obama’s aides portrayed the president as the one trying to bring all sides to agreement.
The immediate goal is clear. In the current dispute over the budget, Mr. Obama wants to try to show that a government shutdown, if it happens, would be the result of a disagreement between the two sets of lawmakers — not a failure of his own.
But there is a long-term goal as well: to convey to a restless public, and especially to moderate voters, that Mr. Obama is above the petty Washington bickering that many Americans say turns them off. That will be especially important for Mr. Obama as his re-election campaign tries to woo back independents who had become disillusioned with him.
As pointed out by The Times’s Jeff Zeleny this week, the president has even begun referring to Democrats in the third person in speeches on the stump.
“Usually the Democrats blame the Republicans, the Republicans blame the Democrats,” Mr. Obama said in Pennsylvania last week. He added: “I’ve got some Democrats mad at me, but I said, ‘You know what? Let’s get past last year’s budget. Let’s focus on the future.’ ”
It is unclear whether Mr. Obama will succeed in defining himself as above the fray. In recent days, Republicans on Capitol Hill have repeatedly tried to cast his role in the budget debate as overly passive.
“I like the president personally. We get along well,” the House speaker, John A. Boehner, told reporters this week. “But the president didn’t lead.”
And at the end of the day, if the government shuts down and voters decide to blame Democrats, it’s unlikely that Mr. Obama’s efforts to portray himself as an evenhanded mediator will keep him from political damage. Several polls taken within the last several days show that the blame for a shutdown would be spread around.
But presidents have a unique ability to set the terms of their involvement in negotiations, and Mr. Obama is making the most of that. As he finished his remarks to the news media Thursday night, he offered to pass along the results of the final discussions between Mr. Boehner and Mr. Reid on Friday morning.
“That’s what I hope to be able to announce tomorrow,” Mr. Obama said. “There’s no certainty yet, but I expect an answer sometime early in the day.”