In not-so-coincidental timing, President Obama held a press conference on Wednesday morning, hours before meeting with Senate Democratic leaders on the status of debt ceiling negotiations. With the August 2 deadline to raise the debt limit looming, and the parties seemingly at an impasse, Obama used much of his hour with the press to shame Republicans into a resolution, both pounding his bully pulpit and cracking some jokes at their expense.
Having long abandoned his preferred method of a clean, no-strings-attached vote to raise the debt limit, the president said that he’s willing to make more than $1 trillion worth of the spending cuts demanded by congressional Republicans. The savings, he said, were identified from a range of government programs. But the president will only agree to such a deal if Republicans also agree to eliminate tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans.
“We can’t get to the $4 trillion in savings that we need by just cutting the 12 percent of the budget that pays for things like medical research and education funding and food inspectors and the weather service. And we can’t do it by making seniors pay more for Medicare,” he said, adding that lawmakers must look at the whole budget, including defense, entitlement costs, and those tax cuts for the super rich.
“The tax cuts I’m proposing we get rid of are tax breaks for millionaires and billionaires. Tax breaks for oil companies and hedge fund managers and corporate jet owners,” he said. “If we choose to keep those tax breaks…then that means we’ve got to cut some kids off from getting a college scholarship. That means we’ve got to stop funding certain grants for medical research. That means that food safety may be compromised. That means that Medicare has to bear a greater part of the burden. Those are the choices we have to make.”
Well, when you put it that way…
The president added that he believes Republicans are posturing, and will come around to his side. “What we’ve seen in negotiations here in Washington is a lot of people say a lot of things to satisfy their base or to get on cable news, but that hopefully leaders at a certain point rise to the occasion, and they do the right thing for the American people. … My expectation is that leaders are going to lead.”
Furthermore, he argued that Republicans’ unwillingness to end the tax breaks is an unsustainable position. “If everybody else is willing to take on their sacred cows and do tough things in order to achieve the goal of real deficit reduction, then I think it will be hard for the Republicans to stand there and say that the tax break for corporate jets is sufficiently important that we’re not willing to come to the table and get a deal done.”
In response to the argument that the president is just employing scare tactics to pressure Republicans into raising the debt limit, the president maintained that there are economic consequences if the government defaults—and it’s not merely his opinion.
“August 2 is a very important date, and there’s no reason why we can’t get this done now,” he said before launching into a comedic riff on the comparable maturity of the First Daughters:
“Malia and Sasha generally finish their homework ahead of time. Malia’s 13; Sasha’s 10. They don’t wait until the night before; they’re not pulling all nighters. Congress can do the same thing. If you know you’ve got to do something, just do it!”
Just in case his feelings weren’t clear enough, Obama followed up with another barb, suggesting that lawmakers cancel their congressional recesses and buckle down:
“I’m very amused when I start hearing comments about, ‘Well the president needs to show more leadership on this,’” he said, ticking off the multiple meetings and outreach he’s put in with congressional leaders on the matter. “I’ve already shown that I’m willing to make some decisions that are very tough, and give my base of voters further reason to give me a hard time. But it’s got to be done. … And if by the end of this week we have not seen substantial progress, then I think members of Congress need to understand that we are going to start having to cancel things. And start staying here until they get it done. They’re in one week; they’re out one week. And then they’re saying, 'Obama’s gotta step in.' You need to be here! I’ve been here. I’ve been doing Afghanistan and bin Laden and the Greek crisis. You stay here!”
This all seems familiar. Back in April, during the countdown to the “government shutdown,” I predicted that the rigid, principled stands on both sides were largely kabuki dance and that they’d strike a deal soon enough. Whatever the final resolution looks like won’t leave either side thrilled, but I doubt the debt ceiling’s truly on the verge of collapse. What do you think?