There are two stories you can tell about today’s press conference with the President. I think people are getting hung up on the tactical side. Yes, the President put a lot of pressure on John Boehner, who abandoned the big deficit reduction deal his party says is the number one thing we can do to get the economy back in shape. There’s definitely a spot of theater to the whole thing. Obama said again and again that he was being reasonable, “bending over backwards” to make an accommodation, but that Republicans defined a deal as one where they get every single thing they want.
But then there’s another story to tell. And that’s one about the sincere, apparently, belief that this is an opportune time to cut social safety net benefits, to do things that make “the extremes” unhappy on both sides, and at least some indication that Republicans are rhetorically correct – that these cuts would help the economy from the standpoint of providing confidence for businesses. Whether you think Obama knows better or not, the actions are pretty clear and easily judged. There’s nothing stopping the President right now from saying that, having failed to win over Republicans on a grand bargain tilted massively in their favor, the thing to do now is to raise the debt limit and go back to deficit reduction at a later date, perhaps with the 2012 budget. That this is seen as an unreasonable request – because of “constraints” – gives the entire game away. It really is the case that Obama is using the debt limit as a leverage point, at least as much as the Republicans are. He’s using it to tell his party that all social programs must be reassessed in the light of budget constraints. He said, basically, that they took their shot with the Recovery Act, and if he had his way it would be re-upped, but that’s over now and the time has come to move to deficits.
It may be that doing something big has become an end in itself for this President, that the glory of inking an agreement has superseded what’s in the agreement. But I don’t think you can continually avoid the available evidence here.
UPDATE: I think this is largely correct.
I’d guess that White House political adviser David Plouffe is very happy about how this debate is playing out, while White House economic adviser Gene Sperling is pretty unhappy about it. Republican intransigence is great for the Obama brand. These negotiations have been an extended opportunity for Obama to continually emphasize his commitment to bipartisanship, his desire to get things done, his frustrations with Washington, his status as the adult in the room. But it’s clear from Obama’s remarks as well as the negotiating positions of the two parties that the final deal is going to include a lot of very deep spending cuts but little-to-no taxes or stimulus.
I line up with the economic team over the political team on this one, especially because I believe the economy is more important than political positioning for an election campaign.