WASHINGTON -- At the conclusion of the debt ceiling debate this August, there was broad relief inside the Obama White House. The resolution to cut roughly $1 trillion in spending without a single revenue raiser (while planning to find another $1.5 trillion in cuts later) was unbalanced and unpleasant. The process of getting there was even more disquieting. But the president had made it through the one legislative battle that top advisers had warned stood between him and the 2012 elections -- and, incidentally, avoided a government shutdown.
And so, as the administration enters the next stage of deficit reduction talks, it's doing so with its chest notably puffed out.
"It is fair to say we've entered a new phase," White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer told The New York Times on Monday. "The popular narrative is that we sought compromise in a quixotic quest for independent votes. We sought out compromise because a failure to get funding of the government last spring and then an extension of the debt ceiling in August would have been very bad for the economy and for the country. ... We were in a position of legislative compromise by necessity. That phase is behind us."
Pfeiffer's bravado seems aimed more at establishing the parameters of future policy negotiations than declaring the era of negotiating over. The period of legislative compromise by necessity is not quite past the administration. Should the current round of deficit reduction talks fail, triggers would be pulled, and billions of dollars in defense and Medicare budgets would be cut -- consequences that the president still wants to avoid.
Republicans are in a similar place. While Brad Dayspring, a spokesman for House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) accused the White House of "taking the very 'my way or the highway' approach that the president himself decried" and of being "in campaign-driven chaos," House Speaker John Boehner's office was more disappointed than indignant over Pfeiffer's remarks.
"Divided government is difficult and at times ugly," said Brendan Buck, a spokesman for Boehner (R-Ohio). "But with 9.1 percent unemployment and more than a year until the next election, I don't think Americans are going to approve of the president taking his ball and going home."
It remains to be seen whether the administration will, in fact, not budge from the president's deficit reduction plan or -- more likely -- will gravitate toward a deficit reduction deal similar to the one the president was negotiating with Boehner over the summer. Either way, it's approaching this round of discussions with a different demeanor. Even some of the groups that preach finding middle ground say there's a sense of liberation in the White House with those vexing debt ceiling and government shutdown fights behind it.
"Unlike previous negotiations, there is no gun to his head here," said Matt Bennett, senior vice president for public affairs at the centrist Democratic think tank Third Way. "There is a trigger, but that is pointed at everybody and nobody wants that. Unlike the debt ceiling, where he was negotiating with terrorists essentially who were willing to blow up the building, now they are on equal footing in that regard."
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