President Obama continued to press for a maximalist debt limit deal in a White House press conference today, saying that “I’m prepared to take on significant heat from my party to get something done.” However, he made a few key statements that give insight into the negotiations.

First of all, Obama said that, without Republicans budging on revenue, “I don’t think something’s going to get done. If their proposition is my way or the highway, I don’t see us getting a deal.” That would hold for a maximalist, grand bargain deal of $4 trillion, or a medium-sized deal of $2 trillion. Obama said that Democrats in the Senate would have to agree to a deal, and that House Democratic votes would be needed to pass any deal. “I will not accept a deal in which I (meaning a rich person -ed.) am asked to do nothing, while a parent out there struggling to figure out how to get a kid to college will have a couple thousand less in student loans.”

Second, he said that he would want an extension of the payroll tax cut to be a component of an overall deal, as a stimulative measure. He did not specify whether that would be an extension on the employee side or adding an employer-side payroll tax cut to it. He said that “It wouldn’t be (the stimulus package that) I would design, but it does make a difference.”

Third, he acknowledged that none of the tax increases would hit in 2011 or 2012. “Nobody’s looking to raise taxes right now,” Obama said. They would start in 2013, in the bigger package, and the President alluded to letting the top-level Bush tax cuts expire that time, as well as allowing certain tax loopholes to expire. He looped back to the payroll tax cuts by saying that the only tax increase looming is that one, if it were allowed to expire at the end of 2011. “I have bent over backwards to work with Republicans,” he added, which didn’t need to be said, I don’t think.

Whether you think the insistence on a big deal that would include cuts to entitlements is a tactic or sincerely felt, it’s clear that the President believes strongly in getting it done. He echoed Bob Dole’s comment about everybody getting in the boat so it doesn’t tip over. He is clearly willing to be unpopular among his party in order to get a deal done, which is says is a component of how to improve the economy, although not the only part. “We should eat our peas,” he said, adding that “I have a stake in John Boehner successfully persuading his caucus that this is the right thing to do. Just like he has a stake in me persuading my caucus.”

On cutting entitlements, he made his pitch thusly. “Medicare in particular will run out of money and we will not be able to sustain that program… If you’re a progressive who cares about the integrity of Medicare and Social Security and Medicaid, then we have an obligation to make sure we make those changes required to make it sustainable on those terms… We won’t make progress on the values we care about without getting our fiscal house in order. If you care about those things, then you’ve got to be interested in figuring out how we pay for all that in a responsible way.” As for Social Security, which he acknowledged is not the source of any deficit problems, he basically said that, as long as we’re doing a big deal, we might as well throw that in. “The reason to include that in this package is, if you’re going to take a bunch of tough votes, you might as well do it now,” Obama said. He did not specify the changes.

So tactical or not, he’s certainly committed to a big deal that includes trimming benefits and some revenues, in a ratio massively tilted toward cuts. “I would want more revenues, and fewer cuts to programs for middle class families,” he said. “But that’s the point. I’m willing to move in their direction to get something done. And that’s what compromise entails.”

He concluded that getting the deficit conversation out of the way would enable the country to move with a laser focus to jobs and investment. I don’t know why anyone would think that deficits could be taken off the table forever, but that’s his argument.

At times, Obama seemed to acknowledge that there’s a much bigger problem in the country than our deficits. He cited the lack of aid to states as driving a recession in the public sector, with the biggest job losses there. He said that he didn’t think solving the debt problem automatically solves the unemployment problem. He said that a strong jobs agenda would be needed, highlighting the desire for an infrastructure bank. But he simply said that “I’m operating under some political constraints here.” And he seemed to want to box in Republicans with their own rhetoric. “(Reducing the deficit) is the primary solution the Republicans have offered with regard to jobs. This is what they claim would be the single biggest boost to business certainty and confidence. So what’s the holdup?”

David Dayen

David Dayen