Obama: Shouldn't Take Risk of Default for Congress to Work
President Obama’s appearance in the Rose Garden on Tuesday seemed like the end of a storm. He announced that the Senate had passed the deal he brokered with congressional leaders, thanked the American people for “keeping up the pressure” on Congress, and said that the important work to be done after the August recess was to create jobs.
To all those caught up in the frenzy of the debt-ceiling fight in Washington these past few weeks, it seemed like a moment of relief. But it was only the eye of the storm, the “first step,” as Obama called it.
“I've said it before. I will say it again. We can't balance the budget on the backs of the very people who have borne the biggest brunt of this recession,” Obama said at the podium, repeating his words of a week or two ago, before he conceded to a deal that did not immediately raise revenues. “Since you can’t close the deficit with just spending cuts, we’ll need a balanced approach where everything’s on the table.”
Progressive Democrats, angry with Obama for what they see as his role in abandoning calls for tax increases on the wealthy, will welcome his remarks promising a fight while a new joint committee considers ways to cut the deficit by an additional $1.5 trillion. “Everyone has to chip in. It’s only fair. That’s the principle I’ll be fighting for during the next phase of this process,” Obama said, citing priorities he had to abandon in the final phase of the debt-ceiling battle: reforming the tax code to increase revenues from the wealthy and eliminating taxpayer subsidies to oil and gas companies and other tax loopholes that allow the rich to pay lower taxes than middle-class workers.
His message: This fight is not over -- this is just halftime.
Obama’s remarks came within the hour after the deal passed the Senate on a 74-26 vote. Shortly after, he signed the bill into law behind closed doors and without the fanfare accorded other more clear-cut victories for the administration, like the passage of the Affordable Care Act.
The legislation guarantees at least $2.1 trillion in a deficit reduction over 10 years, with negotiators hopeful that it will achieve closer to $3 trillion in savings if Congress can enact further deficit-reduction measures by December. It mandates no tax increases and sets up a super committee to cut $1.5 trillion from the federal deficit.
The speech also afforded the president the opportunity to shift to an agenda focused on job creation, something he’s struggled to focus on since January. Interrupted by crisis after crisis – the Arab Spring, the earthquake in Japan, and, most recently, the debt ceiling fight – he says his recent push for public-private partnerships to build jobs and push legislation through Congress has played second fiddle.
Obama said the millions of Americans who are unemployed "want us to solve problems, they want us to get the economy growing and create jobs." Of course, that will have to wait for the rest of August as Congress takes its annual summer vacation. But when they return, Obama promised, he will call on them to extend tax cuts for middle-class families, extend unemployment benefits, pass patent reform, approve three trade deals that have been stalled in Congress, create more opportunities for construction workers, and create an infrastructure bank.
“We have workers that need jobs and a country that needs building,” he said.
Of course, for every item on Obama’s agenda, there will be disagreement from Congress on what he is requesting. Many of his priorities, such as the trade deals, have been held up for months over disagreements on policies like Trade Adjustment Assistance, which aids workers whose jobs were displaced by more free-trade agreements. To some extent, he can work around those disagreements. His recent manufacturing policy, for example, has been built around administration initiatives that don’t require congressional approval.
But he’ll do his best to convince lawmakers that they share the burden of fixing the economy. “Both parties share power in Washington. Both parties need to take responsibility for improving this economy,” Obama said. “It's not a Democratic responsibility or a Republican responsibility. It is our collective responsibility as Americans.”
He pledged to talk about job creation in August, while Congress recesses. But when they return in September, he may find himself just as lonely.
This article appears in the August 2, 2011 edition of National Journal Daily PM Update.
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