Critics will see it as some kind of cynical political ploy. Obamaites will claim that it shows that the president has been reasonable all along. But, no matter the motivation, the central message that President Obama delivered at his Monday press conference on negotiations to raise the federal debt ceiling was exactly right:
“If not now, when?”
America has divided government, required for a deal balanced between entitlement cuts and revenue increases. Non-partisan study after non-partisan study has provided politicians clear, sensible paths to fixing America's deficits. A Democratic president and a Republican speaker of the House both want to strike a grand bargain worth more than $4 trillion over a decade. Pushing back the issue by a few months instead of taking it on now, the president noted, only makes a bigger deal harder to negotiate as the 2012 presidential race heats up.
“If not now,” the president repeated, “when?”
Obama implicitly repudiated the strangely common notion that the 2012 election, which will likely result in more divided government, will give one party a clear mandate to restructure the federal budget without compromising its ideological preferences. So the president said he would continue to push for the largest agreement possible now.
As he did so, Obama called out Republicans, informing them that they will need to give on something to get an agreement. But he was careful to praise House Speaker John Boehner, saying that the GOP leader is negotiating in good faith, that he is “a good man who wants to do right by the country.” And Obama was hard on his own party: “The vast majority of Democrats would prefer, frankly, not to do anything about these debt and deficit problems.”
“I'm prepared to take on significant heat from my party to get something done,” Obama said. Will Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) develop the spines to take heat from their base, too?
The president, finally, made a strong case for solving America's budget problems so that the country can afford efficient, future-oriented federal investment. Not wasteful government spending or a cushy, cradle-to-grave welfare state. Things that increase national wealth over time, such as roads, bridges and medical research. With a crushing bill from Medicare or the full realization of the GOP government-shrinking crusade, such things wouldn't be possible.
Is Obama just making a play for the middle? Possibly. But outside of conservative circles — in which raising a nickel of federal revenue anywhere, anytime is apostasy and federal budgeting is too often an exercise in ideological fantasy — the president sounded measured, diplomatic and fair. If he reaps political benefits from that, he should.