Obama to National Press Corps: 'We Are Not a Deadbeat Nation'
President Barack Obama is a lonely man. He said so himself, at his final press conference of his first term, which took place earlier today in the East Room of the White House. So, standing against the columns of gold brocade curtains that dominate the room’s decor, he invited the House Republican caucus to come over to play cards with him.
That was, of course, a bit of sarcasm on the president’s part, in answer to a question about whether or not he was social enough -- essentially doing the work to form good relationships with both his opponents and allies, as if some make-nice would yield a Congress more amenable to cutting a deal with him. You can’t really blame him for going a little snarky on that one.
“I think there are a lot of Republicans at this point that feel that, given how much energy has been devoted in some of the media that’s preferred by Republican constituencies to demonize me, that it doesn’t look real good socializing with me,” Obama explained. “Charlie Crist down in Florida, I think, testifies to that...”
It was Crist’s joint press conference with Obama four years ago, when, as governor of Florida, he accepted stimulus dollars from the White House, and hugged the president in front of the cameras. That embrace won Crist a primary challenge from Marco Rubio during the Republican primary for Florida’s U.S. Senate seat, with Crist coming out on the losing end. It was one of the first in a series of primary coups by the Tea Party.
“You know, when I’m over here at the congressional picnic and folks are coming up and taking pictures with their family, I promise you, Michelle and I are very nice to them, and we have a wonderful time,” Obama said. “But it doesn’t prevent them from going under the floor of the House and, you know, blasting me for being a big-spending socialist.”
Raising the Roof
Obama didn’t call this press conference, though, to discuss his social skills. This was about the debt ceiling -- the limit on the nation’s ability to borrow money to pay its debts that is set by Congress. With the nation’s obligations set to exceed the current limit in the near future, congressional action is needed to raise the current limit. And, as we learned in the last negotiation on the debt ceiling, the Tea Party’s allies in the House of Representatives are game to gamble the credit rating of the nation to exact their price for raising the roof. Their price typically encompasses draconian spending cuts on social programs, including Medicare and Social Security.
That’s why Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi last week sent a joint letter to the president, urging him to use any legal means to do an end run around Congress, and to declare the right of executive power to raise the borrowing limit.
Several schemes by which this might be done were recently floated, including invocation of Section 4 of the 14th amendment to the Constitution, which reads:
The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned.
The other measure floated by policy wonks would be to use a statute designed for the issue of commemorative coins to mind a platinum coin with a face value of $1 trillion, and deposit it in the Treasury.
As did White House Press Secretary Jay Carney this weekend, Obama used his first-term closer to flatly reject both ideas.
Answering a question from NBC’s Chuck Todd, Obama said: “[T]he issue here is whether or not America pays its bills. We are not a deadbeat nation. And so there’s a very simple solution to this. Congress authorizes us to pay our bills.”
In his opening statement, and again in his response to Todd, Obama made a point of explaining to “the American people” that raising the debt ceiling does not authorize new spending; it simply authorizes that the nation pay the debt it has already incurred.
“I mean, this is not a complicated concept,” Obama said. “You don’t go out to dinner and then eat all you want and then leave without paying the check. And if you do, you’re breaking the law...you don’t say, in order for me to control my appetites, I’m going to not pay the people who are provided me services, people who already lent me the money.”
The president also rejected an idea attributed to House Speaker John Boehner that would raise the debt ceiling incrementally, month by month, in order to expand Republicans’ leverage over the president’s agenda.
“What I will not do,” Obama said, “is have that negotiation with a gun at the head of the American people...” As he uttered that line, he used his fingers to form the shape of a gun.
Ginning Up Fear 'Good For [the Gun] Business'
And speaking of guns, the press conference kicked off with a question from the Associate Press’ Julie Pace, who asked about his plans for gun control, a burning topic in the wake of the massacre that took place exactly one month ago at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. On that topic the president gave up little information, saying he would have more to say on the topic later in the week, presumably when Vice President Joe Biden unveils a report by his task force.
Pressed by ABC’s Jonathan Karl as to whether the president, considering the difficulties he will encounter, getting any kind of gun control through Congress, would consider using his executive powers to effect changes to national gun policy, the president said he would consider such.
But of the rush on guns that has resulted in a surge in sales of assault rifles and high-capacity ammunition magazines since the Newtown shootings, Obama was blunt in his implication that the National Rifle Association and other gun advocates were stirring the pot to gin up gun sales.
“I think that we’ve seen for some time now that those who oppose any common-sense gun control or gun safety measures have a pretty effective way of ginning up fear on the part of gun owners that somehow the federal government’s about to take all your guns away,” Obama said. “And you know there’s probably an economic element to that. It obviously is good for business.”
He asserted that there are ways to regulate gun ownership “that comport with the Second Amendment.”
A Government Shutdown in the Offing?
Some Republicans -- notably former House speaker and failed presidential candidate Newt Gingrich -- are counseling Republican members of Congress to go ahead and pass legislation to raise the debt ceiling, and instead refuse to pass a continuing resolution (the means by which Congress appropriates funds for the running of the government) unless the president gives the G.O.P. the deep spending cuts it wants.
Obama, when asked about the prospects for such, noted that the American people probably wouldn't be too keen on that approach (a view with which Republican pollster Frank Luntz concurs). But he took the opportunity offered by the question to paint a picture of a Republican caucus frought with paranoia.
"[I]t seems as if what’s motivating and propelling at this point some of the House Republicans is more than simply deficit reduction," Obama said. "They have a particular vision about what government should and should not do. So they are suspicious about government’s commitments, for example, to make sure that seniors have decent health care as they get older. They have suspicions about Social Security. They have suspicions about whether government should make sure that kids in poverty are getting enough to eat or whether we should be spending money on medical research. So they've got a particular view of what government should do and should be. And that view was rejected by the American people when it was debated during the presidential campaign."
A Pretty Friendly Guy
Granted the final question of the presser, Jackie Calmes of the New York Times challenged the president on the lack of diversity among his latest cabinet picks, which critics have noted are all white men, as several high-powered women -- including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Labor Secretary Hilda Solis -- exit the cabinet.
Ready for the question, Obama rattled descriptions of women who have played critical roles in his first term -- without ever calling them by name -- and noted that the two Supreme Court justices he appointed are women. He noted that his first-term cabinet and staff were as diverse as any in history, and he promised that his second-term administration would be, as well.
"Now, what, I’ve made four appointments so far?" Obama replied. "...I would just suggest that everybody kind of wait until they’ve seen all my appointments, who’s in the White House staff and who’s in my cabinet, before they rush to judgment."
It was the second part of Calmes' question, though, that seemed to get under Obama's skin -- the part about whether or not he's social enough.
"I’m a pretty friendly guy," the president asserted. "And I like a good party."
He went on to say that Republicans might not want to hang out with him because to do so just might invite a primary challenge when their term was up.
True enough. But the Obama who appeared today at the presidential podium seemed wearily consigned to his role of pleasing no one -- not the Democratic leaders who implored him to unilaterally borrow money to pay the nation's debt, and surely not Republican leaders, who are hostages of the right.
Even his jokes were rueful.
"The nice thing is, is that now that my girls are getting older, they don’t want to spend that much time with me, anyway," Obama said. "So I’ll be probably calling around, looking for somebody to play cards with or something, okay, because I’m getting kind of lonely in this big house."
Then he added: "So maybe a whole bunch of members of the House Republican caucus want to come over and socialize more."
The New York Times has the full transcript of President Obama's January 14, 2013, press conference, here.