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WASHINGTON – President Obama and congressional Democratic leaders, in their ongoing showdown with Republicans, now have a goal beyond protecting the health care law, reopening the government and preventing the first-ever default on the nation’s debt.

They are gambling that if they can hang together and remain tough to the end, they stand a chance to break a dangerous cycle that has taken hold in Washington – one of legislating through brinkmanship, which has brought the government and the financial system to the edge of disaster at least four times over the past three years.

“This not just about Barack Obama. This is about the next president, whoever and whatever party it might be,” Obama told Democratic senators at a White House meeting on Thursday, according to Senate majority whip Richard Durbin, D-Ill.

So far, the Democrats’ strategy of refusing to meet Republican demands – which is not without risk – appears to be working.

At least two well-regarded polls in the past week indicate that Republicans are bearing the brunt of the public backlash over the government shutdown.

Republicans note, however, that the final chapter has yet to be written.

“All parties need to be concerned,” said GOP pollster David Winston. “The one thing we do know is that people are paying very close attention.”

The Democrats’ strategy has been made easier by the fact that the GOP went into the shutdown with no prospect of succeeding in the party’s demand to gut the Affordable Care Act and with no fallback plan.

In setting that as the condition for keeping the government open, Republicans crossed a line that many Democrats believed made this showdown different from previous eleventh-hour negotiations over spending bills and the debt ceiling. Those earlier cliffhangers centered largely on budget issues.

Obama “decided this was a new level of extremism and that the only way to stop it was to draw a line in the sand,” said a senior White House official, who agreed to speak about internal strategy deliberations on the condition of anonymity.

“What was happening on the Affordable Care Act was really extraordinary,” said Sen. Angus King of Maine, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats. “There was an underlying concern that if this sort of tactic is given in to, it will become the norm.”

As often as Republicans have taunted Obama with the gibe that he is “leading from behind,” the past few weeks suggest that is an effective political tactic when an opponent is marching toward a cliff.