JONATHAN COHN JULY 11, 2011
President Obama just finished speaking to reporters in the White House briefing room. Intermittent wi-fi service** made it difficult for me to follow the first half, but it certainly sounded like Obama was making a more pointed argument than he has been making in the last few days.
As you probably know, multiple outlets have reported that House Speaker John Boehner, who had been working diligently with Obama to craft a $4 trillion deficit reduction package, has abandoned that cause because his fellow House Republicans won’t support it. The sticking point, of course, is the taxes. Although the emerging deal was likely to include far more in spending cuts than in new revenue, meaning it would likely reflect Republican priorities more than Democratic ones, Republicans refused to go along because they continue to insist -- publicly and, it would seem, privately -- that one dollar in new tax revenue is one dollar too many.
Obama described the media reports as “largely accurate,” made clear he wasn’t giving up on a major package, and continued to insist that any deal have a “balanced approach.” But what was new, at least to me, was his direct criticism of Republicans on three separate grounds: rigidity (for refusing to compromise, when Democrats have made it clear they are prepared to do that), hypocrisy (for insisting that deficits are the major obstacle to economic growth and then balking now that an actual deal is under discussion), and lack of social conscience (for opposing higher taxes on the rich and seeking to reduce deficits almost entirely by cutting programs that benefit the poor and middle class).
Of course, Obama didn’t use those words. Nor did he appear angry, although he did appear stern and deliberate. If his goal was to convey the impression that he was an adult displeased with the conduct of a bunch of children, well, he achieved it. Remember when Obama criticized congressional leaders for waiting until the last minute to get its homework done? Well, this time he was a bit more direct. He said it was time for them to "eat their peas." And he made it clear that, this time, he was talking about the Republicans.
I hesitate to say anything about the policy nuances of Obama’s statements without reading a full transcript, so consider this tentative. But, to my ears, he said something that’s been widely understood but perhaps not said explicitly before: The efforts to bring in major new revenue wouldn’t begin for a little while, until the economy is in better shape. This is a response to Republicans, like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who have been suggesting Obama and the Democrats want to raise taxes in the middle of a slump.
In response to a question from the Huffington Post’s Sam Stein, Obama also indicated that he does, indeed, believe the Recovery Act worked – more or less saying that, if it were up to him, he’d keep spending money on public works and aid to the states, in order to boost job growth. But given the political resistance – Obama noted that the “House of Representatives” wouldn’t pass such programs, although he didn’t in that instance mention “Republicans” – Obama said he was focusing on initiatives that could generate bipartisan support, like an extension of the payroll tax holiday, although he also touted his proposal for an infrastructure bank. (Me, I would have liked to hear more about fixing up schools, an idea Jared Bernstein has been talking up.)
Finally, Obama also indicated that any cuts to the big three entitlement programs – Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security – must preserve the program’s integrity. That’s a worthy goal and one, I know, most Democrats in Congress share. But not everybody defines “integrity” in the same way, so we’ll have to wait and see exactly how Obama does.
How does any of this play politically? I don't really know. More important, can Obama actually get Republicans to agree on a major deal -- or, really, any deal? It's not like a package half the size will necessarily be easier to negotiate. But time to raise the debt ceiling is running out. And it's starting to get a little scary...
**Starbucks, you let me down!