No TV Until You’re Done

Obama asks Congress to work on the budget the way his daughters work on their homework.

Barack Obama. Click image to expand.
Barack Obama

Two months ago the narrative of the Washington crisis over the debt limit suggested that at this exact stage in the drama the president would step forward, call on both parties to stop playing politics, and position himself as the voice of reason, if not wisdom, in search of a final agreement. This scene would take place in a news conference in the White House briefing room.

My prediction was wrong. The press conference was held in the East Room.

“The question is whether Democrats and Republicans are willing to put aside the expedience of short-term politics to get it done,” said President Obama, reflecting on the letters of anguish he gets from Americans struggling with the weak economy. “These folks are counting on us. … [I]f all the leadership in Washington has the faces and stories of those families in mind they will solve this debt limit issue,” he said. “These are solvable problems, but it does require us just getting out of the short term and, frankly, selfish approach that sometimes politics breeds.”

We’ve seen this posture before from a president—at the same period in the negotiations over extending the Bush tax cuts and averting a government shutdown. Obama is trying to stay in his loft, above the squabbling that voters hate while simultaneously asserting enough (but not too much!) pressure on Republicans to make a deal.

The direct pressure on Republicans wasn’t subtle. Obama effectively said they favored oil companies and owners of private jets over food safety and scholarship students. If Republicans don’t relent, the United States will default on its debt, which would damage the nation’s bond rating and destroy its standing as an economic superpower.

Demagoguery! say Republicans. It’s class warfare! He isn’t being honest about the scope of the tax increases he wants! Republicans may want to overcome their outrage so they can enjoy the really good celebration they could be having. They have maneuvered the president into making a stand on a very small patch of turf: Obama is no longer talking about raising tax rates on those who make more than $250,000 a year. Gone is the tough language of his negotiating posture from last year’s debate over the Bush tax cuts or the rhetoric of his speech responding to House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan’s budget. Indeed, he sounded like a Republican when he argued that tax cuts were necessary to promote economic growth.

Obama’s demands for tax increases are puny, less than $200 billion over 10 years. That isn’t much when you’re talking about trying to cut $4 trillion in that same period. Republicans will argue that Obama is really asking for more tax increases as a part of the debt limit deal. Sure, by talking about a “balanced” approach and “shared sacrifice,” he’d like to shame GOP leaders into giving up more. But that’s only going to get him so much. If he wanted big sweeping tax increases of the kind Republicans warn about, he’d have to make the case for them.

The president’s modest aims match what his advisers say privately *: The big fight over tax increases is coming later, after the debt limit agreement is reached. That’s what the presidential campaign will be about. He can’t risk taking that stand now. If the economy craters as a result, it’s the president, not congressional Republicans, who will pay the steeper price. That’s why he framed this moment in terms of the economy, not philosophy or equity. “What we need to do is restore business confidence and the confidence of the American people that we are on track.”

Plus, Obama needs the deal to establish his credentials as someone who can cut spending. After the debt limit debate is over, and every day until Election Day, he can return to the more heated rhetoric about the philosophical differences with Republicans who refuse to increase tax rates for the most well-off.

While they are enjoying their Champagne, the president’s critics can have a justified grouse about his tactics at the news conference. Obama said Republican leaders were making outlandish statements in order to play to the crowd and cable-news audiences. Meanwhile, he was doing a version of the same, framing Republicans as so obsessed with protecting corporate jet owners that they were willing to send the government into default. “If everyone is willing to take on sacred cows and do tough things to reach the goal of deficit reduction, I think it would be hard for Republicans to say [that] tax breaks for corporate jets is sufficiently important that we’re not willing to get a deal done.”

Which is worse? This kind of game playing, or the games House Majority Leader Eric Cantor was playing when he abandoned the debt limit talks last week? Discuss this at your July 4th parties.

The president’s press conference ended with another familiar tactic from the president. He called on Congress to stay in town until they came to an agreement. What was different this time was that instead of calling for adult behavior, he compared Congress unfavorably to his own children. Sasha and Malia are able to get their homework done before deadline, he said. But Congress only seems to be able to meet its vacation deadlines. “They’re in one week, they’re out one week, and then they’re saying, ‘Obama’s got to step in,’ ” he said. Addressing Congress, he added: “You need to be here. I’ve been here. I’ve been doing Afghanistan and Bin Laden and the Greek crisis. … You stay here. Let’s get it done.”

The threat of a government default has so far not quickened the pace of negotiations. Maybe what they need is the threat of a delayed summer vacation.

Correction, June 30, 2011:The article originally said advisers say this publicly. The author meant to write privately since it was conveyed in not-for-attribution conversation and to his knowledge has not been said in public. (Return to the corrected sentence.) Become a fan of  John Dickerson  on Facebook.