Today's press conference may augur a similar pattern. At greater length than ever, and with top-of-his-game precision, Obama laid out his case for a clean debt ceiling hike and "balanced" deficit reduction. When asked why we should believe that this time he would not blink at the brink, however, he was less convincing.
Two lengthy exchanges tell the tale. In the first, challenged on the consistency of his debt ceiling position and the irresponsibility he alleged in Republican conduct, he was precise and masterful, catching Republicans in a rhetorical pincer: Threatening default is extremist and unprecedented. And doing deficit reduction by spending cuts alone is extremist and unprecedented. One threatens to blow up the economy and destroy the nation's privileged position as the world's default currency. The other threatens to sell the nation's public benefits and seed corn to preserve tax breaks for the wealthy. As the TV hosts say, let's listen:
Major Garrett: Thank you, Mr. President. As you well know, sir, finding votes for the debt ceiling can sometimes be complicated. You yourselves as a member of the Senate voted against a debt ceiling increase. And in previous aspects of American history, President Reagan in 1985, President George Herbert Walker Bush in 1990, President Clinton in 1997 all signed deficit reduction deals that were contingent upon or in the context of raising the debt ceiling. You yourself four times have done that; three times those were related to deficit reduction or budget maneuvers.A daily double in legislative terrorism! The nation's full faith and credit held hostage, and the middle class and seniors held hostage! But then cometh a more troubling question:
What Chuck and I and I think many people are curious about is this new adamant desire on your part not to negotiate when that seems to conflict with the entire history in the modern era of American presidents in the debt ceiling and your own history on the debt ceiling. And doesn’t that suggest that we are going to go into a default situation, because no one is talking to each other about how to resolve this?
OBAMA: Well, no, Major. I think if you look at the history, getting votes for the debt ceiling is always difficult and budgets in this town are always difficult. I went through this just last year. But what’s different is we never saw a situation as we saw last year in which certain groups in Congress took such an absolutist position that we came within a few days of defaulting.
And, you know, the fact of the matter is, is that we have never seen the debt ceiling used in this fashion, where the notion was, you know what, we might default unless we get 100 percent of what we want. That hasn’t happened.
Now, as I indicated before, I’m happy to have a conversation about how we reduce our deficits further in a sensible way, although one thing I want to point out is that the American people are also concerned about how we grow our economy, how we put people back to work, how we make sure that we finance our workers getting properly trained and our schools are giving our kids the education we deserve. There’s a whole growth agenda which will reduce our deficits that’s important, as well.
But what you’ve never seen is the notion that has been presented so far at least by the Republicans that deficit reduction will only count spending cuts, that we will raise the deficit -- or the debt ceiling dollar for dollar on spending cuts. There are a whole set of rules that have been established that are impossible to meet without doing severe damage to the economy. And so what we’re not going to do is put ourselves in a position where in order to pay for spending that we’ve already incurred, that our two options are; we’re either going to profoundly hurt the economy, and hurt middle- class families, and hurt seniors, and hurt kids who are trying to go to college, or alternatively we’re going to blow up the economy. We’re not going to do that.
JULIANNA GOLDMAN: Thank you, Mr. President. I just want to come back to the debt ceiling, because in the summer of 2011, you said that you wouldn’t negotiate on the debt ceiling, and you did. Last year, you said that you wouldn’t extend any of the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, and you did. So as you say now that you’re not going to negotiate on the debt ceiling this year, why should House Republicans take that seriously and think that if we get to the one minute to midnight scenario that you’re not going to back down?The response begins in sleight of hand and then rambles:
OBAMA: Well, first of all, Julianna, let’s take the example of this year and the fiscal cliff. I didn’t say that I would not have any conversations at all about extending the Bush tax cuts. What I said was, we weren’t going to extend Bush tax cuts for the wealthy. And we didn’t.This response moves through three phases: 1) evasion of the question of how firmly he suggested that $250k would be a hard line in raising taxes for 'the wealthy'; 2) suggesting without really defending the fact that, while he always called for "balance" in deficit reduction, he let the spending cuts happen first, with none of the offsetting revenues he'd stipulated; and 3) the crisis negotiation that Goldman implicitly accuses him of enabling/rewarding needs to stop because...it's bad. The assertion that "we’ve got to break the habit of negotiating through crisis over and over again....Because if we continue down this path, then there’s really no stopping the principle" actually validates, indirectly, Goldman's implied accusation that he enabled this habit and to date there has been no stopping the principle. If the American people's faith that one of two parties in divided government could not "dictate 100 percent of what they want all the time" was undermined, it's because Obama appeared to give Republicans all they want (that is, none of what he publicly, repeatedly demanded) in August 2011 (in fact he won himself the crucial concession on the dead ceiling and helped cooked up the ambiguous and competing leverage points in the sequester, on which the jury is still out. But what he had emphasized to the public and urged citizens themselves to lobby for was new revenue.)
Now, you can argue that during the campaign, I said -- I set the criteria for wealthy at $250,000, and we ended up being at $400,000, but the fact of the matter is, millionaires, billionaires are paying significantly more in taxes, just as I said.
So from -- you know, from the start, my concern was making sure that we had a tax code that was fair and that protected the middle class. And my biggest priority was making sure that middle class taxes did not go up. You know, the difference between this year and 2011 is the fact that we’ve already made $1.2 trillion in cuts. And at -- at the time, I indicated that there were cuts that we could sensibly make that would not damage our economy, would not impede growth.
I said at the time, I think we should pair it up with revenue in order to have an overall balanced package, but my own budget reflected cuts in discretionary spending. My own budget reflected the cuts that needed to be made. And we’ve made those cuts. Now, the challenge going forward is that we’ve now made some big cuts. And if we’re going to do further deficit reduction, the only way to do it is in a balanced and responsible way.
The alternative is for us to go ahead and cut commitments that we’ve made on things like Medicare or Social Security or Medicaid and for us to fundamentally change commitments that we’ve made, to make sure that seniors don’t go into poverty, or that children who are disabled, are properly cared for. For us to -- to change that contract we’ve made with the American people, rather than look at options like closing loopholes for corporations that they don’t need.
That points to a long-term trend in which you know we have fundamentally, I think, undermined what people expect out of this government, which is that parties sit down, they negotiate, they compromise, but they also reflect the will of the American people that you don’t have one narrow faction that able -- is able to simply dictate 100 percent of what they want all the time, or otherwise threaten that we destroy the American economy.
Another way of putting it is, we’ve got to break the habit of negotiating through crisis over and over again. And now that we’ve -- now is as good a time as any, at the start of my second term. Because if we continue down this path, then there’s really no stopping the principle. I mean literally -- even in divided government, even where we’ve got a Democratic president, and a Democratic Senate, and that a small group in the House of Representatives could simply say, you know every two months, every three months, every six months, every year we are going to more and more change the economy in ways that we prefer, despite strong objections of Americans all across the country, or otherwise we’re going to have America not pay its bills.
And, you know that is no way for us to do business.
And, by the way, I would make the same argument if it was a republican president, and a republican senate, and you had a handful of democrats who were suggesting that we are gonna hijack the process and make sure that either we get our way 100 percent of the time, or otherwise, you know, we are going to default on America’s obligations.
The followup, partly obscured by "inaudibles" in the transcript, is not reassuring:
OBAMA: No, no look, what I’ve said is, is that I’m happy to have a conversation about deficit reduction.
OBAMA: No, Julianna, look, this -- this is pretty straightforward. Either Congress pays its bills, or it doesn’t.
Now, if -- and they want to keep this responsibility, if John Boehner and Mitch McConnell think that they can come up with a plan that somehow meets their criteria that they’ve set for why they will -- when they will raise the debt ceiling, they’re free to go ahead and try.
But the proposals that they’ve put forward, in order to accomplish that, only by cutting spending, means cuts to things like Medicare and education, that the American people profoundly reject.
Now, if they think that they can get that through Congress, then they’re free to try. But I think that a better way of doing this is to go ahead and say, “We’re going to pay our bills.” The question now is, how do we actually get our deficit in a manageable, sustainable way. And that’s a conversation I’m happy to have.
Am I wrong in understanding this to mean that if Boehner and McConnell make deficit reduction proposals prior to the debt ceiling deadline, with the debt ceiling raise contingent (in their framing at least) on coming to agreement, Obama (or, as he casts it, his allies in Congress) will entertain those proposals?* That sounds rather like negotiating under debt ceiling threat [wrong, yes -- see note below]. The rhetorical structure at work here -- if they "think that they can come up with a plan that somehow meets their criteria...that's a conversation I'm happy to have" - recalls this from a November 14 press conference about the then-looming Bush tax cut expiration:
CHUCK TODD: ...is there no deal at the end of the year if tax rates for the top 2 percent aren’t the Clinton tax rates, period? No ifs, ands or buts and any room in negotiating on that specific aspect of the fiscal cliff?Once again, there are ifs, ands or buts.
OBAMA: With respect to the tax rates, I -- I just want to emphasize, I am open to new ideas. If the Republican counterparts, or some Democrats, have a great idea for us to raise revenue, maintain progressivity, make sure the middle class isn’t getting hit, reduces our deficit, encourages growth, I’m not going to just slam the door in their face. I want to hear -- I want to hear ideas from everybody.
On the plus side, I do think that implicit in Obama's presentation today is a better answer to Goldman's question: that Obama has quite consciously learned from experience, and that the next round of negotiations will redress obliquely acknowledged first-term errors. More on that in the next post.
*Yes, on a fresh read three hours later, I do think I was wrong to yoke these separate statements via elipsis: "if John Boehner and Mitch McConnell think that they can come up with a plan that somehow meets their criteria...that's a conversation I'm happy to have." In fact, he is daring them to try to get legislation enacting wildly unpopular proposals through Congress but suggesting that only after they pass a clean debt ceiling bill is he "happy to have" a conversation about "how do we actually get our deficit in a manageable, sustainable way." And the invitation to try to get a debt ceiling bill that meets their own criteria (some $2.5 trillion in new spending cuts with no new revenue) through Congress does not imply a willingness on his part to engage with such "ideas."
In fact, ever since the debt ceiling debacle, Obama's periodic invitations to Republicans to put forward concrete proposals are a caricature of his longstanding "the other side may have a point/let's exchange good ideas" stance. These days, Obama's characterization of Republican ideas is generally reductio ad absurdum -- "take two tax cuts and call me in the morning." What's left is an invitation to trade desideratum -- and perhaps (I would guess), if revenue and spending cut goals can be settled on, to come to some genuine agreement as to what works best in each category.