“Don’t call my bluff,” President Obama reportedly warned House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) during a tough bargaining session over the debt ceiling July 13. “I’m going to the American people with this.”
It was no empty threat. As the high-stakes negotiations with Congress to avoid financial default Aug. 2 have bogged down, Obama has taken his case directly to the public with increasing urgency. This month, he has appeared in front of reporters at the White House briefing room four times, taken the stage before a friendly crowd of 1,200 in a town hall-style event at the University of Maryland and delivered a rare televised prime-time address to the nation Monday night from the East Room.
The gambit is aimed at winning public support that could give him an upper hand at the negotiating table, though polls suggest Americans are frustrated both with the president and his Republican rivals.
With each appearance, Obama has not altered his message as much as his persona: He verged from poised early in the process — the “only adult in the room” strategy aimed at contrasting him against a squabbling, childish Congress — to frustrated and emotional by the end of last week, when House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) abruptly left Obama “at the altar.” He returned to a more collected and determined demeanor Monday night, as he tried to leave the public with a lasting impression with just a week left until the deadline.
Along the way, Obama has perhaps revealed more public emotion than he has during his 2 1/2 years in office.
The last time the American people saw him up close, in a pair of appearances last Friday, Obama went through a dramatic mood swing before the cameras in a single day.
At a morning town hall appearance at the University of Maryland, Obama used humor and an easy-going manner to walk the crowd through his impasse with Congress.
During the question-and-answer portion, a high school government teacher told Obama that she was having trouble teaching her students the importance of compromise in a two-party political system when they saw the partisanship on Capitol Hill.
“Are things changing?”she asked “ Do we not use compromise anymore?”
“I think you should keep on teaching your students to compromise, because that’s not just how government works; that’s how life works,” he said. “How many people here are married?”
The crowd laughed. “For those of you who are not but intend to get married, let me just tell you,” the president continued, “you better get used to compromise.”
What the crowd did not know was that Obama had placed a call to Boehner earlier in the day. The president expected to begin wrapping up a “grand bargain” compromise that would include a mix of spending cuts and tax increases to slice the deficit by $3 trillion over the coming decade.
But Boehner, whose House Republican caucus revolted over the tax hikes, decided to walk away from the negotiating table. Not until late in the business day, many hours after Obama had left him a message, did Boehner call back to say the deal was off.
Obama instructed his communications team to assemble reporters, and the president appeared just after 6 p.m. Friday in the White House briefing room. He was as frustrated and emotional as he has ever been in public.
“Up until sometime early today when I couldn’t get a phone call returned, my expectation was that Speaker Boehner was going to be willing to go to his caucus and ask them to do the tough thing but the right thing,” Obama told reporters. “I think it has proven difficult for Speaker Boehner to do that. I’ve been left at the altar now a couple of times.”
He continued: “And I think that one of the questions that the Republican Party is going to have to ask itself is can they say yes to anything? Can they say yes to anything?”
Though the president summoned Boehner and other congressional leaders to his office over the weekend, pundits concluded that Obama risked being sidelined as the House and Senate crafted their own emergency debt limit proposals without him.
Perhaps fearing that the defining public image of him during the negotiations would be one of anger, Obama appeared again Monday night, this time bypassing reporters and speaking directly to the public from the East Room.
In the stately hall where he had feted the World Series champion San Francisco Giants only hours earlier, Obama appeared in a blue suit and red tie, looking equal parts grim, annoyed and determined.
His address included most of the same talking points and catch phrases that he has been using all month. He talked of reducing the deficit to put the economy on sounder footing for investments in jobs and avoiding a default that would raise interest rates on student loans. He trotted out populist lines about oil companies and corporate jet owners needing to pay their fair share in taxes. He even urged his audience to “make your voice heard” by contacting their representative in Congress.
But he strayed from the usual script when he got historical, noting that Republican hero Ronald Reagan and even George W. Bush had raised the debt ceiling 25 times between them. Calling for compromise, he quoted Thomas Jefferson: “Every man cannot have his way in all things. . . . Without this mutual disposition, we are disjointed individuals, but not a society.”
Summing up, Obama reached for some of the rhetorical flourish that large numbers of voters found so appealing three years ago.
“History is scattered with the stories of those who held fast to rigid ideologies and refused to listen to those who disagreed,” Obama said. “But those are not the Americans we remember. We remember the Americans who put country above self, and set personal grievances aside for the greater good. We remember the Americans who held this country together during its most difficult hours; who put aside pride and party to form a more perfect union.
“That’s who we need to be right now,” Obama said. “The entire world is watching.”