Obama’s obstinate shutdown strategy: Brilliant or just evasive?

October 2, 2013, 9:00 AM UTC

FORTUNE — Had cameras focused on President Barack Obama’s feet during his Tuesday briefing in the White House Rose Garden, one might have gotten a decent view of the Commander in Chief digging his heels into the soil.

“I will not negotiate over Congress’ responsibility to pay bills it’s already racked up. I’m not going to allow anybody to drag the good name of the United States of America through the mud just to refight a settled election or extract ideological demands,” he said.

President Obama made no mention of plans to try to sit down with the elected officials he blamed for the government shutdown that began Tuesday: Republicans who tied a delay of the Affordable Care Act to a government funding bill.

It was an example of what’s become one of Obama’s signature leadership tactics: forcefully presiding over a debate but not jumping into the partisan fray.

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It’s the same approach he went with in early 2010, leading up to the passage of the law at the crux of the current shutdown. He drummed up support for the Affordable Care Act within his party and in public but left it to Congress to develop the legislation itself.

It was anything but a cakewalk, but Obama landed the signature domestic policy success of his presidency, landmark health care reform.

Now, that law and that same tactic have gotten him a two-day-old shutdown and a rigid Congressional stalemate. Government agencies are closed, more than 800,000 federal employees are on furlough, and the debt ceiling looms, with the government expected to run out of cash to meet its obligations by mid-October unless Congress acts.

Obama’s above-the-fray leadership style has been effective in holding Democrats together, says Robert Mnookin, director of the Harvard Negotiation Research Project, but it’s failed to bring Republicans to the negotiating table. “Strategically what [Obama] should be emphasizing, if in fact a budget is passed and the debt ceiling is extended, is that he will sit down and negotiate possible amendments to Obamacare,” Mnookin says.

In his Rose Garden briefing Tuesday, Obama said that he’d “work with anybody who’s got a serious idea to make the Affordable Care Act work better” so long as those tweaks aren’t tied to funding the federal government.

“He needs to be articulating, underscoring that willingness to talk,” Mnookin says. Indeed, talks between the White House and Congressional leaders ended the last government shutdown in late 1995 and early 1996.

Three days after a budget impasse resulted in a shutdown, then-President Bill Clinton and Republican Congressional leaders Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole met in the Oval Office to discuss a balanced budget agreement. The shutdown ended about two weeks later, when Republicans passed legislation to keep the government open and Clinton, in turn, submitted a plan to balance the budget within seven years.

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In an interview on Sunday’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos, Clinton, in urging Obama to stand up to Republicans, downplayed his decision to negotiate with Congress during the 1995-1996 shutdown, calling the negotiations “minor.” The economy was growing, and the deficit was shrinking then, he said. “We didn’t give away the store, and they didn’t ask us to give away the store,” he said. “I think there are times when you have to call people’s bluff,” he said.

Yes, as Clinton said, times were different — better — then. The stakes are higher now.