Guilt Trip

Obama tries to persuade Republicans to support a deal on the debt ceiling by shaming them.

US President Barack Obama holds a press conference at the White House about budget talks. Click to expand image.
President Obama during the debt-ceiling press conference

Nothing at the state fair this summer will match the gravity-defying act President Obama is trying with his push for a grand bargain on raising the debt ceiling. He is trying to convince House Republicans to agree to something their supporters will hate with someone they hate—and he’s adding to the degree of difficulty by actively antagonizing them. Finally, he’s trying to do all this in record time, faster than the usual rules of politics allow.

At his news conference Monday, the president said he didn’t want to speculate on whether House Speaker John Boehner could deliver enough votes to support any deal the two of them might make in private. But part of the president’s job in getting something big is thinking rather a lot about House Republicans. He’s got to help Boehner come up enough votes to win the 218 needed for a majority.

The first hurdle in this effort is that Republicans are suspicious of any deal Boehner might make simply because of the person he’s making it with. According to the latest Gallup poll, only 13 percent of Republicans approve of Obama. His rating among the GOP base is even lower. If you’ve attended any GOP rally over the last several months, you know this. Simply mentioning Obama’s name, his penchant for administration czars, his use of a teleprompter, or his alleged “bowing to Muslim leaders” (as one Senate candidate put it recently), is sure to produce a roar of disapproval.

The second hurdle is taxes. A grand compromise will require considerable revenue. The president and the speaker noodled the idea of a complicated set of trade-offs that would allow taxes to be increased in some places but lowered in others. One idea was tax increases today with a promise of tax reform in the coming months, with a fail-safe of across-the-board tax cuts if the reform never materialized. But there’s no arrangement sturdy enough to convince conservatives (or the Wall Street Journal editorial page). No matter what Boehner might say, if it’s a big deal, there must be a tax hike in there somewhere.

To clear these hurdles Obama tried a variety of shaming techniques at the news conference based on self-respect, fairness, bravery, and logic. He is still trying to get a big deal, said the president, because this crisis has presented a special opportunity to put aside ideology and achieve something lasting. Sounding the bugle call, he asked “If not now, when?”

Obama also returned to the idea of “shared sacrifice,” arguing that those who have disproportionately benefited in recent years and not suffered as much during the downturn should shoulder some portion of the burden. The majority of deficit reduction will come from spending reductions that are likely to affect those who are not so well off.

The president’s biggest gambit was to show how much grief he was willing to take in order to get a big deal. If he was willing to anger progressives by suggesting changes to Medicare and Social Security, he said, Republicans should be brave enough to take a little heat from their side. Questions at the news conference that stressed Democratic discontent helped Obama make this point (in fact, he may have even called on people he knew would raise these issues to improve the show).

Finally, the president tried offending Republicans. He repeatedly praised Boehner for acting in good faith. “I think he’s a good man who wants to do right by the country,” he said. (White House aides don’t feel this way about, say, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.) But when talking about his predicament, the president said “the politics that swept him into the speakership were good for a midterm election, they’re tough for governing. … Part of what the Republican caucus generally needs to recognize is that American democracy works when people listen to each other, we’re willing to give each other the benefit of the doubt, we assume the patriotism and good intentions of the other side, and we’re willing to make some sensible compromises to solve big problems.”

A statement like this may not seem offensive to you or me. But think of the audience already unfriendly to the president and you start to hear notes of finger-wagging with notes of arrogance. (Imagine if George W. Bush had said this of Democrats when trying to build support for the surge). Is a sweeping generalization about the backward members of the Republican caucus a way to convince them?

Though a larger deal seems a near impossibility, both sides are still optimistic about an agreement that averts an economy-buckling default. Fear unites them—but how that shared sense of doom gives birth to an agreement in the next 10 days or so is murky. Even a smaller deal that would put off another debt limit vote until after the election will still require tax compromises and pain.

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