Obama's Balancing Act: Be the Scolding Adult

The president tries to talk tough while being the adult in the room.

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During his press conference on Wednesday, President Obama's voice had a level of frustration that seemed unfamiliar to those who follow the normally cool communicator. He accused the Republicans of being childish and of putting corporate interests ahead of middle-class Americans. He blasted the Senate for its plans to vacation next week rather than work on passing a debt ceiling increase. "At a certain point, they just need to do their job," Obama said.

In contrast to Republicans, the president issued few ultimatums. He cast himself as the responsible, bipartisan adult in a roomful of children. "If everybody else is willing to take on their sacred cows, and do tough things, then I think it would be hard for the Republicans to stand there and say that the tax break for corporate jets is sufficiently important that we're not willing to come to the table and get a deal done," he said. Still, he tried his best not to draw lines in the sand. "I think he managed to be firm and reasonably bipartisan at the same time," says William Galston, a former White House official for Bill Clinton and current fellow with the Brookings Institution. "I think he emphasized the equal responsibility of Democrats and Republicans to come off some of their positions that appeal to their respective bases in order to have a meaningful agreement. On the other hand, he suggested that Democrats have moved farther in the direction of fiscal bipartisanship than Republicans had." [See editorial cartoons about President Obama.]

That's been Obama's approach all along in the seemingly endless series of standoffs with Congress: keep the red meat rhetoric to a minimum, let the House and Senate Democrats do the real fighting, and cast himself as an honest broker looking to make the best deal for the nation. While Republicans have refused to budge from their stance that a debt ceiling deal must include trillions of dollars in savings, and must not include tax hikes of any kind, Obama has shied away from making veto threats. Even in Wednesday's speech, he said that the deal should preserve the "fundamental security" of Medicare and Medicaid, not necessarily ruling out overhauls or cuts to the programs. House Democrats welcomed Obama's feistier tone, although they maybe wished it had come earlier. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, in a press release praising Obama's performance on Wednesday, seemed to imply that Obama was following their lead. "Bravo! This is the fight House Democrats have been making for the last six months under the Republican Majority as they move to end Medicare and continue tax breaks for Big Oil," Pelosi said.

Left-leaning observers also wonder whether the president has missed his chance to use the bully pulpit to force the debt-ceiling issue. Even if a compromise is struck, the Republicans' hard-line stance may have pushed the deal closer to their position. "Any time you're negotiating with Congress, you have to involve the American people in the conversation. I think where the public comes down is often the critical factor in moving the negotiations the direction you want it to go," says Scott Lilly, a senior fellow at the liberal Center for American Progress. "That has traditionally been one of the great powers of the presidency. ... I don't think that power has been used particularly effectively in this administration." It's not so much a choice that Obama made recently—it's been his demeanor since he first became a major political figure on the national stage. "Obama was not elected to be a partisan warrior," Galston says. "If he is seen as having become a partisan warrior, he stands to lose a lot."

Obama's press conference comes about one month before the Treasury's deadline to raise the debt ceiling. The rhetoric on both sides has escalated, with little signs that the two sides are ready to make any concessions from their current stances. Though there's time to strike a deal, congressional observers say, many have been left to question the prospects of a compromise on the full measure. "I wouldn't be surprised if the best they can do right now is a smaller interim agreement, focused almost exclusively on discretionary spending," Galston says. "In which case, the odds are the package would not be enough to see us through the presidential election." A repeat of this fight during the 2012 elections would very likely be even more polarized and leave negotiators with even less wiggle room. It would require Obama to brandish more of his fighting spirit—whether or not he wants to.