When in doubt, bash Congress. It’s a handy rule of thumb for almost any President, and in his East Room press conference on Wednesday, Barack Obama offered a clear lesson in how to do it.
The central issue of Obama’s presser was the ongoing negotiations with Republican leaders over a hike in the federal borrowing limit, which the White House says must happen before August 2 to avoid potentially dire economic consequences. In exchange for their votes, Republicans are demanding long-term deficit reduction measures–namely, deep cuts in federal spending–while Obama pushes for the inclusion of new tax revenues, which the GOP is resisting. Although Republicans have said that Obama needs to show more leadership, the President pointed the finger back at Congress, saying that he’s done his part and that Congressional leaders should come up with a debt deal soon, rather than dragging out negotiations.”There’s no reason we can’t get this done now,” Obama said.
Even if you agree with Obama’s position, you’ll have to forgive the folks on Capitol Hill if they feel condescended to. “Malia and Sasha generally finish their homework a day ahead of time,” the President said. “Malia is 13 and Sasha is 10….They don’t wait until the night before. They’re not pulling all-nighters.” Congress can do the same thing, he said. “They need to do their job.”
Obama also noted that one or both chambers of Congress are scheduled to be out of session for much of the summer, even as the time bomb of a potential federal default ticks away. His message to Congress: “You need to be here. I’ve been here. I’ve been doing Afghanistan and bin Laden and the Greek crisis.” By now the press corps was laughing aloud. (John Boehner, having just been compared unfavorably to two young girls, probably was not.) Incidentally, Obama referred only to Congress, not Republicans in Congress–perhaps to maintain a patina of adult, above-the-fray bipartisanship. But perhaps Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi were not laughing, either.
They certainly weren’t laughing when Obama blamed Congress, which until recently was Democratic, for the deficit problem itself. “These are bills that Congress ran up. The money’s been spent. The obligations have been made.” (Translation: It’s not my fault.)
The President also worked to frame the debate about what shape a debt ceiling deal should take. Republicans want a package consisting almost entirely of spending cuts. Obama said cuts to defense and entitlements may be necessary, but insisted that “millionaires and billionaires” cough up more tax revenue. Obama specified ending tax breaks for oil and gas companies, and harped at some length about closing a tax loophole for corporate jets (yes, that really does exist).
Fundamentally, though, his message was that Congress is to blame, and Congress needs to solve the problem. But is an institution he portrayed with such disdain really able to rise to the occasion? “Call me naive,” Obama said, “but my expectation is that at a certain point, leaders are gonna lead.” That opinion might be naive. But the way Obama framed his message on Wednesday was anything but.