For the second time in three weeks, President Obama's has given a press conference on the troubled debt-ceiling negotiations. This time, he stated his opposition to a short-term extension of the debt ceiling and called on Republicans to put aside partisanship, and agree to a long-term compromise on spending and revenues.
There are two ways of reading Obama's rhetoric press this morning. The first is as an elaborate game of political theater – Obama is using deficit reduction to position himself as the sensible alternative to a destructively ideological Republican Party. Under this view, deficit reduction isn’t a core priority, and the administration’s proposed $4 trillion “grand bargain” was a stunt; the White House knew that congressional Republicans would never accept $1 trillion in new revenue, even if it came with entitlement cuts, but offered the deal because it bolstered Obama’s “reasonable” persona.
You can see this in his comments this morning; when asked if lawmakers could come to a deal if Republicans don’t budge on taxes, Obama responded with this, “If Mitch McConnell and John Boehner are sincere…then they are going to have to compromise like Democrats will have to, and like I have shown myself willing to compromise.” And when discussing the substance of a deal, Obama – in a brief fit of exasperation – said that he had “bent over backwards to work with Republicans to try to come up with a formulation that doesn’t increase taxes.”
If this is political theater, then it looks a lot like Bill Clinton’s moves in 1995, when he contrasted his moderate policies with the extremism of House Republicans and their leader, Newt Gingrich. The circumstances are somewhat different – Clinton was working with a strong and growing economy at his back – but the political calculation is identical.
On the other hand, you could just as easily argue that Obama is sincere about reducing deficits. During this morning’s news conference, he reserved his strongest words for conservative intransigence on new revenues, and liberal opposition to benefit cuts. “If you’re a progressive who believes in the integrity of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid,” said Obama in an attempt to explain his position, “then you have an obligation to make those programs sustainable in the long-term.” Likewise, “If you’re a progressive who believes in Head Start and college assistance, we’re not going to be able to do that if we don’t have our fiscal house in order.” He even went as far as to answer a question about unemployment with this bit of conservative orthodoxy:
Taking an approach that costs trillions of dollars isn’t an option, we don’t have that kind of money. What we can do is solve our debts and deficits. Once the ground is stable under our feet, are there some strategies that we could pursue that can focus on targeted job growth.
The position that Obama is a deficit hawk fits his rhetoric and what we know of his history. He was a loud critic of President Bush’s fiscal record during the 2008 campaign, he trumpeted health care reform as a deficit reduction package during the fight over its passage, and his administration began this year with a proposal to trim spending over the next decade. Liberals might be frustrated by the president’s willingness to embrace austerity, but it’s hard to say that it comes as a surprise.
Both reads are probably true. Barack Obama is trying to present himself as the adult in the room by portraying the Republican Party as extreme to voters. At the same time, Obama, like most moderate Democrats, wants to curb spending and get as close to balanced budgets as possible. That this is insane in an economy where unemployment hovers at 9.2 percent doesn't seem to be a limiting factor.
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