President Obama addresses the nation on the debt ceiling from the East Room of the White House in Washington on Monday.
President Obama addresses the nation on the debt ceiling from the East Room of the White House in Washington on Monday. Jim Watson/AP
President Obama played one of the last cards left to him Monday evening in the debt-ceiling fight — a prime-time speech from the White House East Room to the American people, the bulliest of all bully pulpits.
A little more than a week before the federal government could default for the first time ever on its debt if Congress doesn't increase the government's borrowing ability, Obama sought to tilt public opinion even more in his direction and against congressional Republicans.
The president argued, as he has for weeks, for a "balanced approach" in the deficit-reduction that Republicans grafted onto the debt-ceiling battle.
In this he appears to have most Americans with him. A number of national polls show a majority of those surveyed agreeing with Obama, to greater or lesser degrees, that deficits should be reduced through a mix of spending cuts and tax increases on the wealthy and corporations.
He also argued for the debt-ceiling to be extended past the 2012 general elections to give an added measure of stability to the economy and financial markets. The Republicans oppose that, wanting another debt fight next year.
NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images
House Speaker John Boehner, U.S. Capitol, July 25, 2011.
House Speaker John Boehner, U.S. Capitol, July 25, 2011. NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images
The president appeared to be hoping that his speech might spur a torrent of constituent phone calls, letters and emails to congressional Republicans that might do what weeks of Washington negotiations and jawboning have failed to.
And it might do that. Presidential speeches from the White House in times of crisis have a way of galvanizing public support for a president.
But winning in the court of public opinion is a much different proposition entirely from winning at the negotiating table.
Evidence of that can be found in the fact that those same polls that indicate the public sides with Obama's balanced approach versus the Republicans' spending-cuts only tack haven't appeared to do much to change the attitudes of GOP lawmakers. As far as they're concerned, higher revenues from anything that looks like a tax increase is off the table.
A noteworthy aspect of Obama's speech was that the president didn't harshly criticize Speaker John Boehner, the Ohio Republican who ended negotiations with the president last week.
Obama actually praised Boehner for seeking a bipartisan solution over a number of weeks. That sentiment wasn't likely to help Boehner within the Republican conference. At no point did the president show the anger at Boehner that he did at last week's news conference after the speaker cut off further talks with Obama.
Instead, the president focused the blame on those he viewed as the enemies of compromise, namely the freshmen Republicans, many of whom won their seats with the support of Tea Party activists for the crisis.
With polls showing that most Americans, especially political independents, favor compromise, Obama worked that theme hard, citing the word six times in one passage. He said:
I think that's a much better path, although serious deficit reduction would still require us to tackle the tough challenges of entitlement and tax reform. Either way, I have told leaders of both parties that they must come up with a fair compromise in the next few days that can pass both houses of Congress – a compromise I can sign. And I am confident we can reach this compromise. Despite our disagreements, Republican leaders and I have found common ground before. And I believe that enough members of both parties will ultimately put politics aside and help us make progress.
I realize that a lot of the new members of Congress and I don't see eye-to-eye on many issues. But we were each elected by some of the same Americans for some of the same reasons. Yes, many want government to start living within its means. And many are fed up with a system in which the deck seems stacked against middle-class Americans in favor of the wealthiest few. But do you know what people are fed up with most of all?
They're fed up with a town where compromise has become a dirty word. They work all day long, many of them scraping by, just to put food on the table. And when these Americans come home at night, bone-tired, and turn on the news, all they see is the same partisan three-ring circus here in Washington. They see leaders who can't seem to come together and do what it takes to make life just a little bit better for ordinary Americans. They are offended by that. And they should be.
The American people may have voted for divided government, but they didn't vote for a dysfunctional government. So I'm asking you all to make your voice heard. If you want a balanced approach to reducing the deficit, let your Member of Congress know. If you believe we can solve this problem through compromise, send that message.
And in a touch meant to show that it's not just Tea Party activists who can cite the Founding Fathers to make a point, quoting Thomas Jefferson, Obama said:
" 'Every man cannot have his way in all things... Without this mutual disposition, we are disjointed individuals, but not a society.' "
From the other end of Pennsylvania Ave., there were no words of compromise from Boehner who delivered the Republican rebuttal. (Remember the days when presidents delivered prime-time speeches without an opposition rebuttal?)
Boehner didn't avoid criticizing Obama as the president avoided criticizing him. And whereas the president's message seemed aimed at political independents, Boehner's appeared aimed at conservatives, especially Tea Party Republicans, generally, and his GOP conference specifically:
Last week, the House passed such a plan, and with bipartisan support. It's called the 'Cut, Cap, and Balance' Act. It CUTS and CAPS government spending and paves the way for a Balanced Budget Amendment to the Constitution, which we believe is the best way to stop Washington from spending money it doesn't have. Before we even passed the bill in the House, the President said he would veto it.
I want you to know I made a sincere effort to work with the president to identify a path forward that would implement the principles of Cut, Cap, & Balance in a manner that could secure bipartisan support and be signed into law. I gave it my all.
Unfortunately, the president would not take yes for an answer. Even when we thought we might be close on an agreement, the president's demands changed.
The president has often said we need a 'balanced' approach — which in Washington means: we spend more. . .you pay more. Having run a small business, I know those tax increases will destroy jobs.
The president is adamant that we cannot make fundamental changes to our entitlement programs. As the father of two daughters, I know these programs won't be there for them and their kids unless significant action is taken now.
The sad truth is that the president wanted a blank check six months ago, and he wants a blank check today. That is just not going to happen.
Then Boehner said something which doesn't take journalistic fact checker to spot the problems with it:
You see, there is no stalemate in Congress. The House has passed a bill to raise the debt limit with bipartisan support. And this week, while the Senate is struggling to pass a bill filled with phony accounting and Washington gimmicks, we will pass another bill – one that was developed with the support of the bipartisan leadership of the U.S. Senate.
Actually, there is a stalemate in the divided Congress. The Republican House and Democratic Senate are the very definition of stalemate.
That's why both Boehner and Sen. Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, have each drafted rival plans to raise the debt-ceiling and reduce deficits.
And neither plan as it's currently structured could pass in the other chamber. Also, because the Senate is evenly split and even a single senator from the minority party has more of a chance of stopping legislation than a single House member does, there's likely to be a Senate stalemate that will stall Reid's bill, which Obama embraced in his speech, in that chamber.
All told, there was nothing in either of the two speeches that represented progress in resolving the debate-ceiling fight. As political rhetoric, the speeches likely connected with the audiences they were intended for.
But they likely did very little to change matters at the negotiating table for the better.
And that, after all the presidential speeches and congressional rebuttals, is where this fight with such high stakes, is going to be settled. There, and on the floors of the House and Senate where they'll need 218 and 60 votes respectively.