This has presented one of those moments for me when I don't understand what Obama is doing, but after watching him for over 3 years, I figure eventually we'd see the strategy.
Lately Steve Benen has been postulating that if Obama gets into the battle, it simply intensifies Republican intransigence and gives them a target. That makes some sense.
But this morning it was Michael Gerson (Republican and former speech-writer for Bush) who put some meat on those bones. You have to wade through his partisan framing - but here it is:
...Obama now has Republicans cornered in budget negotiations. By accepting $33 billion in cuts for the remainder of 2011, Obama has taken the middle ground and exploited a major division within the Republican coalition. The administration has transformed a weak record into a strong political position...
This maneuver has also placed House Speaker John Boehner in exactly the position he wanted to avoid. Obama’s offer is more than reasonable. A $30 billion reduction, after all, was the initial Republican negotiating position back in early February. Given that Republicans control only the House, this level of cuts would normally be viewed as a remarkable success. But a portion of the Republican conference longs for a confrontation that results in a government shutdown, preferring a fight over a victory. And the only worse outcome for Boehner than a politically risky shutdown is a deeply split conference, pitting the Republican establishment against Tea Party purists — a result that would undermine all future Republican progress.
So Obama has managed to lighten his liberal baggage, turn Republicans against each other and ensure they would be (justifiably) blamed for a shutdown. Not a bad month’s work.
Once again, we see how conciliatory rhetoric can be ruthless strategy when the opposing party has given their radical fringe so much power.
Many on the left criticize Obama for not being more strident in his condemnations of the radical elements that have taken over the Republican Party. What I see is a calculation that those folks are the fringe in the country as a whole and engaging with them only brings the Democratic rhetoric down to their level.
But a strategy that deepens the divide between the two existing factions - all while continuing to present himself as "the adult in the room" - shows the real power plays that are going on behind the scenes.