Obama Scolds Congress, Again, on the Debt Limit


President Obama and congressional leaders met again on Sunday, trying to hash out an agreement on deficit reduction and raising the debt ceiling before the Aug. 2 deadline. They parted ways, again, with no deal. In a Monday press conference, the president outlined the deal he'd like to see: a reduction in the federal deficit of $4 trillion over the next 10 years, through increasing revenue by ending tax breaks for the wealthy and making changes to Medicare and Social Security. He also amped up pressure on both Republicans and Democrats over the absence of this elusive grand bargain.

"I continue to push congressional leaders for the largest possible deal," Obama said on Monday. "There is, frankly, resistance on my side to do anything on entitlements. There is strong resistance on the Republican side to do anything on revenues. But if each side takes a maximalist position, if each side wants 100 percent of what its ideological predispositions are, then we can't get anything done."


The president shifted most of the blame to the GOP, however, repeatedly suggesting that they are performing political pantomime with faux concern for the debt.

"We keep on talking about this stuff, and we have these high-minded pronouncements about how we've got to get control of the deficit and how we owe it to our children and our grandchildren. Well, let's step up," the president said. "Let's do it. I'm prepared to do it. I'm prepared to take on significant heat from my party to get something done. And I expect the other side should be willing to do the same thing — if they mean what they say that this is important."

Clarifying the President's Position

The president also used the press conference to illuminate his stance on the appropriateness of tax increases and of Social Security and Medicare being on the table.

"When you hear folks saying, 'Well, the president shouldn't want massive, job-killing tax increases when the economy is this weak' — nobody is looking to raise taxes right now," he said. Rather, he's proposed ending tax loopholes, starting in 2013, for "corporate jet owners or oil companies, at a time where they're making billions of dollars of profits."

And what's his deal with simultaneously pushing cuts in programs for seniors and the poor? Obama explained that Medicare is unsustainable the way it's being run and is on track to run out of money if changes are not made. While Social Security is not actually a deficit driver, he wants to include it in this package to finally deal with the perpetually delayed issue of strengthening and extending the program's life.


"If you're a progressive who cares about the integrity of Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid, and believes that it is part of what makes our country great that we look after our seniors and the most vulnerable, then we have an obligation to make sure that we make those changes that are required to make it sustainable over the long term," he said.

Gary L. Flowers, executive director and CEO of the Black Leadership Forum, who meets regularly with White House officials on policy issues, offered The Root his take on Obama's "all in one fell swoop” approach to the debt ceiling. He said that while he sympathizes with the view that it's unnecessary to put programs for the vulnerable on the line, from a strategy perspective he thinks that it puts Obama's opponents on the hot seat.


"The president is calling the Republicans' hand on just how serious they are about cutting the deficit," Flowers said. "If Republicans are serious, then they will negotiate in earnest. If this is a ploy to only move the fence back once again and not be satisfied, then it's more of the same."

An Impending Crisis?

Despite the stalled negotiations, the president insisted that they will get it done by Aug. 2. He tried to emphasize what's at stake if the government fails to raise the debt ceiling and defaults on its loans — including lost confidence in the markets, potentially another recession, and higher interest rates for both the federal government and ordinary Americans. But with polls showing that most Americans oppose raising the debt limit, he has failed to convince the public that there's really any impending crisis.


"Well, let me distinguish between professional politicians and the public at large," Obama said in his defense. "The public is not paying close attention to the ins and outs of how a Treasury option goes. They shouldn't. They're worrying about their family; they're worrying about their jobs; they're worrying about their neighborhood. They've got a lot of other things on their plate. We're paid to worry about it." 

On the other hand, Obama might have gained more ground had he engaged the public on this issue, despite its complexity, and tried to rally informed support. Flowers, however, isn't convinced that such an outreach effort would have worked.


"Most Americans are not trained in economics and high finance, so it is the responsibility of elected officials who know these issues to act in the best interest of their constituents," said Flowers, continuing that he thinks that Republicans who threaten a government default when tax revenues are broached actually know what's at risk but are staking this position to look good for their base. "They are being disingenuous in the negotiations."

Getting Back to Jobs

Several times during the press conference, Obama said that he wants to tackle the deficit and budget ceiling in one fell swoop because worries over federal spending only sidetrack what he says is his biggest priority: getting people back to work.


"The thing that I am obsessed with … is all those families out there who are doing the right thing every single day, who are looking after their families, who are just struggling to keep up, and just feel like they're falling behind, no matter how hard they work," Obama said, adding that many legislative steps could be taken. As an example, he raised his proposal of increased spending on infrastructure, aggressively rebuilding roads, bridges, broadband lines and schools as a way to boost the economy and create jobs.

"But we can't even have that conversation if people feel as if we don't have our fiscal house in order," he said. "So the idea here is: Let's act now. Let's get this problem off the table. And then with some firm footing, with a solid fiscal situation, we will then be in a position to make the kind of investments that I think are going to be necessary to win the future."


With members on both side of the aisle opposed to making his requested concessions, however, can the president "win" on a compromise package within the next three weeks?

"This is a national and global imperative that both sides must get done, but I would say the weight of the argument is on the Republicans who are representing the interests of millionaire and billionaires who don't need tax breaks," said Flowers. "To equate the position of protecting millionaires and billionaires with the argument of protecting entitlement programs that affect the elderly and the poor is a false dichotomy. But they have to get it done."


Cynthia Gordy is The Root's Washington reporter.