WASHINGTON — More than two years ago, President Barack Obama was still in the thick of his previous showdown with Republican House leaders over the nation's debt limit when he called five senior advisers into his office.
He did not ask their advice, one said. Rather, he told them, in a way that brooked no discussion: From now on, no more negotiating over legislation so basic and essential to the economy, and the country.
“I'm not going through this again. It's bad for democracy. It's bad for the presidency,” Obama said, according to the adviser, who declined to be identified describing internal discussions.
The president then told the group — his Treasury secretary, chief congressional lobbyist, chief economic adviser and both his and the vice president's chiefs of staff — to spread that word, “even in your body language.”
Since then, so has Obama.
To make his message on the debt ceiling stick, he had to deliver it, repeatedly, not only to Republicans convinced that he would “cave,” as many often have said, but also to business groups, the broader public and even to Democrats in Congress.
Failure could shake not only the economy, but also his presidency, given his reputation, fair or not, for drawing red lines and then watching foes cross them.
The current fight is hardly over, yet the steady retreat of House Republicans since late last week, when they first proposed a short-term increase in the debt limit without policy strings, suggests that Obama's big gamble could be paying off. It is a stand that was, and still is, fraught with risks if neither side backs down.
But scorched by the July 2011 fight that hurt the economy and his political standing (though not so badly as the Republicans'), Obama was determined to undo the precedent he had set by making concessions — in that case, more than $2 trillion in spending cuts over 10 years, including the across-the-board reductions known as sequestration — so that Congress would ensure that the government paid its bills.
The year began with an early test of the president's approach, and, for a time, it was vindicated. With Obama having been re-elected and Republicans chastened by November losses, House Speaker John Boehner announced a less-confrontational course, with support from the most conservative lawmakers, at a party retreat in Williamsburg, Va.
Instead of demanding one dollar in spending cuts for every dollar increase in the debt ceiling, as before, Republicans set two new conditions for agreeing to suspend the borrowing limit at the time: Senate Democrats had to pass an annual budget for the first time in four years, which they subsequently did, and House Republicans had to pass one that proposed a balanced budget in 10 years, instead of three decades as their recent budgets had. There were no demands on Obama.
Conservatives came to oppose the so-called Williamsburg Accord, and by summer they were demanding repeal of Obamacare in return for raising the ceiling. Boehner revived his dollar-for-dollar demand in August, but by September he had been pressed into the conservatives' cause against the health care law.
Obama, in response, virtually campaigned for his no-negotiations stand.
He had the united backing of congressional Democrats. “It took very little persuasion,” said Sen. Charles Schumer of New York. “The theory is very simple: It's that if you do it now, we'll be doing it every three months.”
But the House Republican majority, dominated by Tea Party conservatives who scorned the default warnings, was widely seen until last week as less likely than Obama to flinch.
National polls have more Americans siding with the president, said Geoff Garin, a Democratic pollster.