Coming across more as beleaguered press secretary than leader, President Obama gave a brief address last night that gave a glimpse of how he plans to capitalize on a government shutdown, if it comes to that: blame the shutdown if our struggling economy isn’t ready for prime time in November 2012.

The performance was lackluster, but the president was clearly doing his leadership thing: he commanded Congress to give him a decision early this morning though they actually have until midnight tonight. Hand in your papers, kids. The president outlined dire threats to western civilization if there is a shutdown. The only one I can remember in the cold light of day is that 800,000 government workers will have to fill their time by going shopping or making play dates (though the president framed the tragedy somewhat differently).

The Wall Street Journal notes in an oped headlined “Who Really Wants a Government Shutdown:”

For people who keep saying they don’t want a government shutdown, Washington’s warring parties are sure acting like they can’t wait for it to happen. Since the policy stakes of this particular drama are so low, we can only assume this showdown is about Democrats and Republicans proving their relative political manhood….

Keep in mind this fight is only over funding for the last six months of fiscal 2011. Democrats were supposed to pass this budget last year but failed to do so. House Republicans proceeded to cut $61 billion after two years of record spending, but Mr. Obama says he’ll accept only $33 billion and most of that must come not from specific programs but from “unobligated balances” that might not be spent anyway. Republicans now want $40 billion and cuts that are real.

Inviting a shutdown sooner or later has looked to be the White House strategy since Mr. Obama unveiled his own budget in February that increased spending and dodged any serious budget reform. Our guess is that Mr. Obama’s political advisers have concluded that the lesson from Bill Clinton’s 1995 shutdown is that presidents win such showdowns. If they don’t believe this, why risk a shutdown over $7 billion and a few policy differences like funding for Planned Parenthood?

I think that the shutdown, if it happens, will be all about those oh-so-courted independent voters. The White House and Democrats want to portray the GOP and its allies in the Tea Party as dangerous: See, they shutdown the government! That’s why Harry Reid feigned sympathy for a Speaker who has “the Tea Party screaming in his ear.” This has become not about the budget but about breaking the momentum of the GOP, as demonstrated last November, by portraying them as too irresponsible and ideological to govern.

The Journal suggests that the GOP save their powder for the more important battle over Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget. It might be extremely hard to make this case to elements of their base, but a really strong fight for Paul’s budget might do that for them. While crafty Democrats are always looking to exploit the political situation, the GOP is always looking to eat its own. There is one other reason, of course, that the GOP has been reluctant to cave: they may be haggling over mere billions, but to update what  Everett Dirksen once said, a billion here and a billion there and pretty soon you’re talking about real money.