Obama’s Debt Talks Update: “I Always Have Hope”

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Jason Reed / Reuters

U.S. President Barack Obama holds a news conference in the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House in Washington July 15, 2011.

President Obama visited the White House briefing room again on Friday to talk about his standoff with Republican leaders over the national debt. Obama didn’t have much to offer in the way of new ideas or specifics. Instead, he once again implored Republicans to budge from their insistence that any deficit reduction deal not include tax revenue increases. What makes him think the stubborn likes of Eric Cantor will commit that kind of ideological hara-kiri? “I always have hope,” Obama said with a broad smile. “Don’t you remember my campaign?”

Barely. Obama promised to transcend partisanship, and transform Washington’s calcified debate. But the long and often petty grind of the debt negotiations hardly feels like the new era that he promised. Of course, when Obama fashioned his hope-and-change message he couldn’t know the U.S. economy was about to do a full Hindenburg, largely rendering his presidency a massive exercise in economic triage.

With no new ideas to put on the table, Obama reiterated two key points. The first, aimed at Republicans, was simple: Continue holding out against revenue increases at your own risk; the public is on my side. Obama repeatedly invoked polls that show the public favors his “balanced” vision of deficit reduction that would supplement spending cuts with some tax hikes on corporations and the wealthy. Even a majority of Republican voters, as Obama noted, support including some revenue increases in a debt deal. “I’m assuming that at some point, members of Congress are going to listen” to public opinion, Obama said. Maybe, but at the moment evidence is scant.

His other key message was to liberals who are confounded by the degree to which Obama is willing to accept painful spending cuts far out of proportion to any possible revenue increases. He explained that, although it would be possible to raise the debt ceiling without an accompanying budget deal, that’s not an outcome liberals should root for. Obama wants to bite the bullet now and, as much as possible, remove the deficit as the defining question anytime government tries to do something. ” If you care about making investments [in the country]…. then you should want our fiscal house in order, so that every time we propose a new initiative someone doesn’t just throw up their hands and say, ‘Aw, more spending, more big government.”

In making that point, Obama reminded me of Bill Clinton, who outraged liberals in 1996 by signing a sweeping welfare reform bill, a Republican-passed measure that was much tougher than his original proposal. Clinton argued that Americans wouldn’t trust expansive government until Washington demonstrated that it wasn’t supporting vast numbers of freeloaders. Obama is making a similar case today, arguing for a short-term setback that he says can have long-term benefits for his party’s goals.

But at Obama 2012 headquarters, those public opinion polls probably loom largest. The Obama team’s hope is that if Republicans refuse any budget deal with tax revenue increases, Obama can bludgeon the GOP as defenders of the rich and “special interests” on the campaign trail in the months ahead. Obama could lose this battle, but still win the larger war. Perhaps that’s his ultimate expectation. After all, he always has hope.