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Obama Debt-Ceiling Pitch Sounds Re-Election Themes

President Obama during a White House East Room news conference June 29, 2011.
President Obama during a White House East Room news conference June 29, 2011.

Watching President Obama Wednesday at his first full-scale news conference since February, it was difficult not to be aware of the two simultaneous campaigns he was waging.

The first and more short-term campaign was his effort to get congressional Republicans to agree to raise the federal debt ceiling by the Aug. 2 deadline set by the U.S. Treasury Department to avert a debt default by the U.S. government.

Since the economy is the issue that tops all others for voters, Obama said the debt-ceiling was about jobs.

OBAMA: And I want to — I want everybody to understand that this is a jobs issue. This is not an abstraction. If the United States government, for the first time, cannot pay its bills, if it defaults, then the consequences for the U.S. economy will be significant and unpredictable.

Congressional Democrats had been complaining that Obama wasn't doing enough to communicate the importance of the issue to the public and risks of not acting. Wednesday's news conference should answer some of those concerns.

The second and longer campaign was, of course, his effort to win one more term in the White House.

Those two campaigns overlap since Republican officials, like Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, have been open about viewing part of their job to be keeping Obama from a second term.

In discussing the need to raise the $14.3 trillion debt ceiling which would allow the federal government to meet its obligations, Obama framed his disagreement with Republicans in ways meant not just to get him through the debt-ceiling fight but past the eventual Republican presidential nominee as well.

By refusing to consider any tax increases, even on the wealthiest, Republicans were fighting for "millionaires and billionaires" who wanted to keep tax breaks for corporate jets as well as the oil and gas industry, Obama said.

Meanwhile, in seeking to end or reduce such tax breaks, Obama said, he and congressional Democrats were trying to save federal spending important to the well being of middle-class Americans.

OBAMA: ... If we do not have revenues, that means there are a bunch of kids out there who are not getting college scholarships. If we do not have those revenues, then the kinds of cuts that would be required might compromise the National Weather Service. It means that we would not be funding critical medical research. It means that food inspection might be compromised. And — and, you know, I've said to some of the Republican leaders: You go talk to your constituents, the Republican constituents, and ask them, are they willing to compromise their kids' safety so that some corporate-jet owner continues to get a tax break. And — and I'm pretty sure what the answer would be.

It's hard to imagine a more powerful metaphor for wealth and privilege than the corporate jet.

Many congressional Republicans have argued that any tax increases with so tepid an economy are sure "job-killers." The private jet tax break is meant as a strong counter to that.

It was the president's attempt at portraying congressional Republicans as the unreasonable, extreme and radical ones, refusing to consider any ways of attacking the nation's deficits and debt other than deep spending cuts in discretionary and mandatory programs.

Obama, on the other hand, said he favored a more balanced approach that included not just spending cuts but new tax revenues. To prove he had the better argument, he cited ex-congressional Republicans like Alan Simpson, the former senator from Wyoming, and Pete Domenici, the former senator from New Mexico, as agreeing with him.

The implication was that once out of office, Republicans were freer to take less partisan stands than those still in Congress.

As he has done before, Obama said entitlement programs cherished by Democrats, Medicare and Medicaid, would have to be part of the discussion too.

Democrats have to accept some painful spending cuts that hurt
some of our constituencies and we may not like. And we've shown a
willingness to do that for the greater good, to say: Look, there are
some things that are good programs, that are nice to have; we can't
afford them right now.

The statement reflected Obama's governing style. He is more pragmatist than anything else.

But it also places him in between the hardliners in both the Democratic and Republican parties, allowing him to occupy the sensible middle.

That's where political independents are, the voters thought to be crucial to his reelection chances.

Through that kind of triangulation between ideologues in both parties, the president can make a stronger case for the support of those independents.

This actually is one of Obama's advantages going forward over the Republicans vying for the chance to run against him as their party's nominee.

Because they're running for the GOP nomination, those in the Republican field are forced to take positions to the right of most of the electorate.

The eventual nominee will need to get back to the political center and quickly during the general election.

The president, on the other hand, is in the political center now and can work that middle ground all through the Republican primaries.

Obama clearly tried not to get too far away from the political center on gay marriage. Obama said he approved of what happened in New York state last week when it became the largest state to make same-sex marriage legal.

That led a Laura Meckler, a Wall Street Journal reporter to ask the president if he had changed his mind on the issue. The president has in the past said he supports civil unions but not gay marriage though he has added that his views on the matter are "evolving." Since he was speaking positively of what had happened in New York, had he evolved all the way to supporting gay marriage as a matter of national policy?

Obama said: "I'm not going to make news on that today. (laughter) Good try, though."

An observer could easily have gotten the impression that the president didn't plan on making news on this front until the day after the 2012 general election, assuming he's re-elected.

In what is likely to be a close election, the president will likely need to thread his way to the required 270 electoral votes. Openly supporting gay marriage before the election could leave him short of that.

Still, Obama could and did make a hard-to-refute claim aimed at binding to him the support of LGBT people and their circle of family and friends despite his gay-marriage dodge: that his administration has done the most in history to them on an equal legal footing with others.

OBAMA: You know, let me start by saying that this administration, under my direction, has consistently said, we cannot discriminate, as a country, against people on the basis of sexual orientation. And we have done more in the two and a half years that I've been in here than the previous 43 presidents to uphold that principle, whether it's ending "don't ask, don't tell," making sure that gay and lesbian partners can visit each other in hospitals; making sure that federal benefits can be provided to same-sex couples across the board; hate crimes.

There was another indication that the president sees raw partisan politics everywhere he looks these days. He was asked about the War Powers Act in relation to the U.S. military's role in Libya.

Though Democrats and Republicans alike have accused the president of not consulting with Congress enough despite the limited role played by U.S. forces, Obama reduced the dispute to a simple case of Ds versus Rs.

We have engaged in a limited operation to help a lot of people
against one of the worst tyrants in the world, somebody who nobody should want to defend. And we should be sending out a unified message to this guy that he should step down and give his people a fair chance to live their lives without fear. And — and this suddenly becomes the cause celebre for some folks in Congress? Come on.

In the news conference, Obama also seemed to be laying the groundwork for a variation of President Harry Truman's successful "do-nothing Congress" campaign of 1948.

Obama portrayed himself as the effective chief executive, getting things done compared with a legislature that, he suggested, wasn't feeling the same urgency he was.

At the start of the news conference, he listed a number of pieces of legislation already introduced that Congress could pass that would create jobs. He did this knowing full well the GOP-led House would likely ignore his recommendations. That opens up the opportunity to accuse House Republican leaders of a litany of failures.

To drive home the image he wished to convey of a busy president and of a Congress that doesn't quite get how much needs to be done, he said:

And — and — if — if by the end of this week we have not seen
substantial progress, then I think members of Congress need to
understand we are going to, you know, start having to cancel things
and stay here until we get it done. You know? They're — they're --
they're in one week; they're out one week. And then, they're --
they're saying, Obama's got to step in it. You need to be here.
(Laughter.) I've been here. (Laughter.) I've been doing Afghanistan
and bin Laden and — (laughter) — the Greek crisis, and — (laughter)
-- you stay here. (Laughter.) Let's get it done.

At the end of the news conference, the president sounded less angry, returning to the high ground bipartisan political pragmatism and sounded themes we're likely to hear for months to come. The nation's political leaders know what works, he said. They just need to put aside thoughts of political advantage and do what's needed.

There are — there are some things that aren't going to solve all
our problems, but can make progress right now. And the question is whether or not Democrats and Republicans are willing to put aside the expedience of short-term politics in order to get it done.

And these folks are counting on us. They are — they desperately
want to believe that their leadership is thinking about them, and not
playing games. And — and — and I think that if — if all of the
leadership here in Washington has the faces and — and — and the
stories of those families in mind, then we will solve this debt limit
issue, we will put in place steps like a payroll tax cut and
infrastructure development, we'll continue to fund education, we'll
hold true to our commitment to our seniors.

These are solvable problems, but it does require us just getting out
of the short-term and, frankly, selfish approach that sometimes
politics breeds. And we've got to think a bit long term.

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