On his daily schedule Wednesday, President Obama has two meetings – both with his own advisers. For the second day in a row, there are no public appearances or private meetings with Congressional leaders.
With six days left before the United States faces a potentially calamitous financial default Aug. 2, Team Obama has been reduced to talking to itself.
Since the president’s bid for a “grand bargain” compromise with House Republicans collapsed Friday, Obama has looked increasingly like a bit player in the larger drama, waiting for House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to do the heavy lifting and present him a debt ceiling plan.
It is an image that could be politically damaging to Obama as the 2012 election campaign heats up. And it is one the White House spokesman Jay Carney tried hard to counter during a testy daily press briefing Tuesday.
The president is involved in discussions “every day, every hour, all weekend,” Carney insisted when asked about Obama’s role. “He has met regularly with the leaders of Congress. He has met individually, collectively with the leaders of Congress. He is steeped in the detail and has been engaged in the negotiations. ... Whether that entails large, formal meetings in the Cabinet Room or telephone conversations, it continues.”
Yet Carney was not specific when asked whom Obama has spoken with and when and about what over the past several days. Obama’s last known in-person meeting with Congressional leaders was Sunday, when he summoned Reid and House Minority leader Nancy Pelosi to the White House.
On Friday, Boehner stunned and angered the president when he abruptly halted negotiations with Obama and announced that the House would develop its own plan and work with the Senate to pass legislation to lift the nation’s $14.3 trillion debt-ceiling. Reid said the Senate also would come up with an alternative proposal.
For the president, this apparent rebuke marked a sharp turnabout from the commanding position he held in the high-stakes negotiations just a week ago, when his push for a “grand bargain” compromise that would slash $4 trillion from the deficit was still in play.
A reporter asked Carney on Tuesday if the president feels sidelined.
“Absolutely not,” Carney replied. “I think, not for any lack of trying to keep things somewhat quiet, it’s been made clear that conversations between the White House and leaders of both parties in both houses have continued through the weekend, into this week. And they have to continue because we have to find a compromise.”
That compromise increasingly looks as though it will be hammered out between the Republican-led House and Democrat-led Senate. Boehner said he will hold a vote this week on a new plan developed by Republicans that aims to cut $1 trillion from the deficit.
How the Obama team is helping Reid counter Boehner is not clear, aside from the president’s televised live address to the nation Monday night in which he continued to lobby publicly for a big-deal compromise.
Carney stressed that administration officials -- such as budget director Jack Lew and deputy director Rob Nabors, as well as Vice President Biden’s chief of staff Bruce Reed -- have “intensely engaged in this.”
They have written blog posts on the White House Web site, taken to Twitter to answer questions from the public and hit the radio airwaves. After Obama called on the public to send a message to their Congressional representatives during his Monday address, phone lines and Web sites were overloaded on Capitol Hill Tuesday.
And Obama and Biden both canceled several fundraising events across the country to remain in Washington for the debt talks, according to the Chicago Sun-Times.
When reporters pressed Carney why Obama has not offered many details on the “grand bargain” proposal, he noted that White House staffers held a private briefing with reporters last Friday after the president’s news conference.
“I can’t remember if you were here Friday night,” Carney said sarcastically, alluding to the fact that the press room was only half full. “Some of you weren’t because you cut out early.”
Continuing, Carney said that “senior members of the House Republican leadership can open their desk drawer, pull out reams of paper that represents the president’s proposals and his counterproposals, and his counter-counterproposals, and his understanding that they need more of this and that he would like more of that. There is plenty of detail.”
Pressed again to elaborate, Carney grew frustrated. “Look, we have shown a lot of leg on what we were proposing,” Carney said.
“Where?” a reporter asked.
Carney lifted his trousers to display his calf. “From the podium, right here,” he said.
Later, Carney wondered, with exasperation, why reporters kept asking for a written proposal from the president, rather than just listening to what Obama has said in public.
“I mean, look, you need something printed for you, you can’t write it down?” he asked. “There is ample detail.”
It remains to be seen whether any of it will matter to Congress before time runs out.