The end of a presidential term may be time to stop and take stock of the last four years, but President Barack Obama didn't get that chance Monday. The final news conference of his first term focused heavily on fiscal matters, with Obama taking a hard line on deficits and the escalating debt ceiling fight, and taking aim at Republican lawmakers who threaten to hold up negotiations on those issues.
"The financial well-being of the American people is not leverage to be used. The full faith and credit of the United States of America is not a bargaining chip," he said, referring to Republican lawmakers who have said they will not boost the government's authority to borrow money without spending cuts. Obama said he would not negotiate with Republicans on the debt ceiling, and that not to raise it is "absurd."
If Congress fails to raise the government's borrowing limit, the government will likely default on its debts late in the second half of February, according to the Bipartisan Policy Center. The last time the U.S. threatened to default, the nation received its first ever credit downgrade. Though there is no way to know exactly what the consequences would be, defaulting would mean delayed checks for entitlements and tax refunds, as well as the potential for further downgrades, another recession, and market turmoil.
Obama also took on the role of explainer-in-chief, speaking directly to Americans who may not understand the complex issues of federal spending, he said.
"I want to be clear about this: the debt ceiling is not a question of authorizing more spending," he said, later adding, "We are not a deadbeat nation."
To that end, the president said he would happily do the job himself, if Congress grants him the power.
"There is no simpler solution—no ready, credible solution—other than Congress either give me the authority to raise the debt ceiling or exercise the responsibility that they have kept for themselves and raise the debt ceiling," he said.
However, the White House will not act unilaterally on the debt ceiling; last week, press secretary Jay Carney rejected the idea, proposed by congressional Democrats, that the president use the 14th amendment.
After raising the debt ceiling, Obama said, he would be ready to discuss with Congress longer-term deficit-reduction strategies. He took a firm stance on this topic as well, insisting that those strategies include both spending cuts and increased revenues. Republican proposals have tended to focus more heavily on cutting spending. While he is championing a "balanced" approach, Obama said he is willing to negotiate the terms of deficit reduction with lawmakers of both parties.
However Obama allowed a note of cockiness to creep into his remarks, referencing a fresh mandate from the American electorate.
"It turns out the American people agree with me. They made a clear decision about the approach they preferred," he said.
Still, the government's ledgers weren't the only topic of the day. At times, the subject turned to the gun debate sparked by last month's shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. Obama said he was in favor of stronger background checks, a limit on high-capacity magazines, and a "meaningful" assault weapons ban.
Still, he is awaiting other opinions on the topic. Vice President Joe Biden is heading up a task force on how to curb gun violence. Monday, Biden and several cabinet members are meeting with U.S. House members, and later this week they will present their recommendations to the White House.