In announcing his deficit plan on Monday morning, President Obama staked out his position in the upcoming political battle with Congress, wielding populist rhetoric and his veto threat in the hopes he can budge Republicans from what he cast as their “my way or the highway” refusal to consider tax increases as part of any deficit-reduction package.
(RELATED: Text of Obama's Speech)
Republicans have already dismissed the president’s call for $1.5 trillion in new taxes and his call for a “millionaire’s tax” as “class warfare” in an effort to kill it before it even gets a hearing on Capitol Hill. Minutes after the president’s speech, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, dismissed its contribution to what he said was the serious work of the joint select committee charged with coming up with a deficit plan. “Unfortunately,” he said, “the president has not made a serious contribution to its work today.”
The tone of the Republican counterattack was already set by Sunday when House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said of Obama’s proposed tax increases, “Class warfare may make for good politics, but it makes for rotten economics.”
(RELATED: Obama Looks to Harness Power of Deficit Cuts)
But Obama confronted the charge head-on during his remarks in the Rose Garden.
“This is not class warfare,” he said. “It's math.” He said that in the battle to reduce the deficit, “the money's going to have to come from someplace. And if we're not willing to ask those who have done extraordinarily well to help America close the deficit, and we are trying to reach that same target of $4 trillion, then the logic—the math—says everybody else has to do a whole lot more.”
The president is forced to try to insert himself into the debate because of the unusual nature of the process now adopted to come up with a deficit plan: putting all the responsibility in a special 12-person committee instead of in the usual legislative process. Reminding those 12 members he has veto power and is willing to use it could serve to force them to pay attention to the president’s wishes earlier in the process.
So the president did not dwell on the specific numbers of his plan, leaving that to his aides. Instead, he set out the limits of what he could tolerate in the plan that is supposed to be developed by Nov. 23 and passed by Dec. 23.
Focusing only on spending cuts and excluding tax increases, he said, would “put the entire burden on the middle class and the poor” and would leave the country with a weakened economy and “second-rate roads and bridges and airports. And schools that are crumbling.” That, he said, is “unacceptable to me.”
And, he added firmly, “it will not happen on my watch. I will not support—I will not support any plan that puts all the burden for closing our deficit on ordinary Americans. And I will veto any bill that changes benefits for those who rely on Medicare, but does not raise serious revenues by asking the wealthiest Americans or biggest corporations to pay their fair share.”
He said he will not stand for “a one-sided deal that hurts the folks who are most vulnerable.”
In his remarks, the president pointedly recalled the failure this summer of his effort to strike a “grand bargain” on taxes and spending and entitlements with Boehner. “Unfortunately, the speaker walked away from this package. What we agreed to wasn't that grand. But it was a start,” the president said.
He also cited Boehner’s economic speech last week. “To his credit, he made the point we can't afford the kind of politics that says it's ‘my way or the highway.’ I was encouraged by that,” Obama said. But he lamented that “in the same speech, he also came out against any plan to cut the deficit that includes any additional revenues whatsoever.”
He accused Boehner of doing exactly what he said he wouldn’t and insisting on “my way or the highway.”
Boehner fired back in a statement, saying, “Pitting one group of Americans against another is not leadership.” He added, “This administration’s insistence on raising taxes on job creators, and its reluctance to take the steps necessary to strengthen our entitlement programs are the reasons the president and I were not able to reach an agreement previously, and it is evident today that these barriers remain.”
This article appears in the September 19, 2011, edition of National Journal Daily PM Update.