President Obama spoke with NPR in the Oval Office on Monday, as a visiting group of young people in suits got a tour of the Rose Garden outside the windows. The most striking part of our encounter in this moment of crisis was how familiar the atmosphere seemed.
Some of what the president said he also said during the debt ceiling crisis of 2011. We've become desensitized to this kind of showdown; the president is accustomed to it. The Congress is accustomed it. The public seems less engaged than in previous rounds, and yet the consequences are as high as ever: a potential nightmare for federal employees and the millions who rely on federal services, with a potential global calamity looming beyond that.
If there was any difference between the president on this occasion and my four previous talks with him, it was in the firmness of some of his statements. Would he refuse to negotiate with Congress over the debt ceiling, even if the United States surpassed the debt limit and began defaulting on its obligations? "Absolutely I will not negotiate," he said, explaining that "one faction, of one party, controlling one chamber in Congress," was trying to "blackmail" him.
On the more immediate problem of a bill to open the federal government, were any of the various House bills to avert a shutdown coming closer to anything he could sign? "No," the president said. He did say he would call congressional leaders, but when I asked what he would offer them, he replied, "I shouldn't have to offer anything."
House Republicans have been just as adamant that they would not extend the operations for the government, even for a few weeks, unless the president agreed to do significant damage to the Affordable Care Act, the central portion of which, not coincidentally, goes into effect Tuesday — the same day as the start of the government's fiscal year. It is the president's signature domestic achievement, and he is determined to see it come into force.
The president's critics fear that once in force, Obamacare will never be revoked; the subsidies to pay for health insurance will prove too appealing. On this, if nothing else, Obama said he and his critics agree.