How the current "hostage crisis" in D.C. will end depends on how each side perceives the other's will to persevere. The House GOP, remembering an earlier Obama who actually took pride in his willingness to compromise (public option? what public option?), began the showdown comfortable in its belief that Obama would, once again, back down -- that, at a minimum, he would agree to postpone the individual-mandate portion of the Affordable Care Act for another year (i.e., until after the 2014 midterm elections, when voters who found themselves unexpectedly happy with their new, subsidized health coverage might not be kind to the party that wants to take it away from them). Their confidence that Obama would compromise was bolstered by the softness he demonstrated early in his first term, and by their belief that Obama "caved" during a similar standoff in 2011. (Very few people understand that Obama actually "won" that round.)
Obama, meanwhile, has been evolving to tougher, and more sophisticated, negotiating positions ever since Rahm Emanuel (who frequently counseled "cave") left the West Wing; his hard-line position here actually is fairly consistent with that evolution. His stance in the current faceoff is that he is so committed to ending the cycle of budget-as-blackmail showdowns that he willing to accept substantial losses -- even to allow the nation to default on its sovereign debt -- rather than enable future hostage-taking by budging on Obamacare or anything else of value to Republicans.
Given Obama's past reputation for going wobbly, Republicans aren't wrong to wonder whether he's bluffing. If he's not bluffing, however, the GOP may be in for a nasty surprise.
The standoff this time around, as framed by Obama, is summarized best by Kevin Spacey in the film "The Usual Suspects." Taking indefensible liberties with Christopher McQuarrie's brilliant script:
"There was a gang of Tea Partiers who wanted their own party. They realized that to be in power you didn't need guns, or money, or even numbers. You just needed the will to do what the other guy wouldn't. After a while, they come into power, and then they come after Obama. ... He comes home to find his wife raped by a transvaginal ultrasound wand and his children screaming because they've been denied S-CHIP and decently-funded educations. The Tea Partiers knew Obama was tough, not to be trifled with, so they let him know they meant business by shutting down the government... But Obama showed these men of will what will really was."
In short: Obama is threatening to deal with Republican hostage-taking the way Keyser Soze would:
Of course, the endgame isn't the point; Obama's objective is to win before the hostages get killed, by stoking the impression that, like Keyser Soze, he is willing to do the unthinkable rather than surrender power. (That's why he's willing to take political heat for being "unwilling to negotiate": in this particular gambit, unwillingness to negotiate is exactly where power is derived.) If Obama can convince establishment (ie, business-oriented rather than ideological) Republicans that he's willing to accept a debt default in order to achieve greater gains (including preserving Obamacare, discrediting the Tea Party, retaining control of the Senate, and possibly regaining the House), then moderate Republicans who currently are unwilling to go out on a limb and sign Nancy Pelosi's discharge petition will suddenly be desperate to force a floor vote on a clean Continuing Resolution and end the standoff -- and the currently-ascendant Tea Party wing of the GOP will collapse like a jostled souffle.
They key is for Obama to persuade mainline Republicans that he has Soze-like resolve -- much like Ronald Reagan used unthinkably dark humor and technologically unworkable, insanely expensive and destabilizing initiatives like Star Wars and new missile programs to bluff (?) Soviet leaders into believing he sincerely wouldn't mind going to nuclear war (leading the USSR to itself overspend on military technology, and hastening its collapse). If they believe him, they will back down. If they don't believe him, it'll be fascinating to see what Obama actually does. I suspect he might actually go through with it.
Obama, by nature, is more sincere and transparent than Reagan ever was. And he's certainly not as bloodthirsty as Soze, no matter what Glenn Greenwald thinks. But in this fight, he's adopting the Kayser Soze model. The big question is, how confident are the more adult Republicans that he's just bluffing?