President Barack Obama is selling himself as the mediating centrist in the budget debates that are providing more sound bites than deals these days. Some of his supporters, Democrats and independents alike — not to mention unions — contend instead that he’s sold himself to the devil, especially putting potential Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid cuts on the table.
But Republicans aren’t buying his sales pitch at all.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell alleged on the Senate floor Tuesday that Obama has put government expansion ahead of the goal of a bipartisan plan to cut the U.S. deficit. In addition, the Kentuckian said, Democrats have prevented a large-scale “grand bargain.”
‘‘I was one of those who had long hoped we could do something big for the country,’’ McConnell said. “But in my view, the president has presented us with three choices: smoke and mirrors, tax hikes, or default. Republicans choose none of the above.”
Instead, he said, “Republicans will choose a path that actually reflects the will of the people, which is to do the responsible thing and ensure the government doesn’t default on its obligations.”
Meanwhile, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, demanded more specifics from Obama, saying, "Where's the president's plan? When's he going to lay his cards on the table?"
"This debt limit increase is his problem," Boehner said. "I think it's time for him to lead by putting his plan on the table, something that the Congress can pass."
Calling out Obama on his leadership tactics challenges the president’s evolving pattern of letting liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans stake out strong positions on issues while he remains on the sidelines. As the debate heats up, Obama jumps in as a centrist, trying to bend both sides toward the middle.
Now, the president’s maneuvers are playing out over the budget deficit/debt limit negotiations. He doesn’t want to abandon the grand deal for $4 trillion in deficit reduction over the next 10 years that he was negotiating with Boehner last week.
That deficit shrinkage would come through a combination of spending cuts and tax increases. But tax hikes, of course, are anathema to the GOP base, so Boehner had to pull back. Republicans instead are seeking $2 trillion in spending cuts.
However, Obama says he won’t accept a short-term budget/debt limit agreement that simply kicks the deficit can down the road. He wants Republicans to give in on tax increases and Democrats to give in on trimming entitlements — Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.
One could argue that Obama is abandoning his liberal base in going after entitlements, but his key constituency now is independents. And indications are that even that part of his base could be eroding. Although a New York Times/CBS News poll last month showed Obama’s approval rating among independents rose 5 points from the start of the year to 50 percent, a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll indicated that 50 percent of independents still disapprove of his job performance.
“Seeking to shed the image of big-government liberal that Republicans used effectively against him last year, he has made or offered policy compromises on an array of issues and cast himself in the role of the adult referee for both parties’ gamesmanship, or the parent of stubborn children,” Jackie Calmes wrote in The New York Times.
Obama is positioning himself more as a nonpartisan than as a Democrat. “We keep on talking about this stuff, and we have these high-minded pronouncements about how we’ve got to get control of the deficit and how we owe it to our children and our grandchildren,” he said Monday. “Well, let’s step up. Let’s do it.”
Obama is calling for higher taxes on the wealthy as part of the deal, and Republicans aren’t biting. They say the real problem is the president’s advocacy for “job-crushing tax hikes,” as Boehner’s office put it.
“To me, this feels like a big kabuki theater act on the part of the administration,” a Republican Hill aide told Politico.
“It is simply impossible to believe this administration is all in for major entitlement reform when they’ve taken a pass until now, but are suddenly willing to take the political heat.”
Republicans point out that Obama has come a bit late to the table for negotiating a transformative deal. Boehner, not Obama, “has been pushing [the grand bargain] for months,” another GOP aide told Politico.
“Boehner urged him to do entitlements. They responded they’d need tax hikes for that. We said can’t do tax hikes, how about tax reform? They entertained the idea, and then there we were, taking a look at a ‘big’ deal.”
It’s not just Republicans who are questioning Obama’s approach. “I think he wants to win the ‘who is most serious about the deficit’ contest among the electorate,” Jim Kessler, a former Democratic Senate aide and founder of the moderate group Third Way, told Politico.
“His Number One goal is to get a big, grand bargain deal. But absent that, he can show the American people that he was willing to put everything on the table” while claiming “Republicans, once again, walked away from the table.”
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