US shutdown: Parties not yet ready to blink

A "Do Not Cross" yellow barrier tape hangs on the barricade closing the World War II Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, DC, on October 1, 2013. Image copyright AFP
Image caption The shutdown closed Washington visitor attractions including the National Mall's WWII memorial

It is hardly surprising that the president has truncated his trip to Asia in the midst of a crisis. But looking closer at the details tells you more.

He's still going away on Saturday but has cancelled two stops. It suggests he thinks the shutdown won't be over any time soon - he only needs to be back in town in the later part of next week.

All the signs are that neither side is preparing to blink, quite yet. But while the president is staring hard and straight ahead, the Republicans' eyes are beginning to water, and they are glancing at the ground.

Obama has a strategy. The Republicans have a problem.

They are backing down, albeit very slowly. First they wanted to stop Obamacare. Then delay it. Then delay part of it. That is still their position but they have tried to open a few bits of government, like national parks.

Of course they are doing this so they look like reasonable people, seeking compromise. But it is a terrible tactic.

Most people aren't that interested in politics and don't pay attention to the details. What the Republicans see as clever just looks messy. The shifting Republican message won't get through, except to their hardline base.

On the other hand, Obama has firmly linked this crisis to a much worse one that is coming around the corner.

The shutdown is more farce than tragedy. It may be hard to work people up about closed national parks and the plight of government workers in Washington. But the threat not to raise the USA's debt ceiling is, according to most economists, so appalling, and so terrible for the world economy, that they can barely think about it.

So it is easy for the president to scare the pants off people about the possibility of Republicans screwing up America's economic future with their games.

It's likely that Democrats will tie both issues together and insist there is no point reopening the government unless the debt ceiling is sorted as well.

Being invited to take part in some form of grand negotiations about the whole of the government's finances would at least give Republicans some sort of a face-saver that they might be able to sell to their troops.

For the president, dealing a fatal blow to what he calls government by crisis would be a big prize. If the Republicans are left even more divided, that is just an additional benefit.

But I am running ahead of myself. For now there is no end in sight.

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