President Obama's cheerful, mocking statement enraged Republicans. But the bigger problem is he said something Republican leaders have been trying to hide from their members. Obama said, clearly, that if the GOP wants more spending cuts later, they're going to need to hand over more taxes, too. In fact, he said it repeatedly.
He made the point when talking about the sequester:
I want to make clear that any agreement we have to deal with these automatic spending cuts that are being threatened for next month, those also have to be balanced, because, remember, my principle always has been let’s do things in a balanced, responsible way. And that means the revenues have to be part of the equation in turning off the sequester and eliminating these automatic spending cuts, as well as spending cuts.
And then he made it again when talking about Medicare cuts:
I’m willing to reduce our government’s Medicare bills by finding new ways to reduce the cost of health care in this country. That’s something that we all should agree on. We want to make sure that Medicare is there for future generations. But the current trajectory of health care costs has gone up so high, we’ve got to find ways to make sure that it’s sustainable.
But that kind of reform has to go hand and hand with doing some more work to reform our tax code, so that wealthy individuals, the biggest corporations, can’t take advantage of loopholes and deductions that aren’t available to most of the folks standing up here; aren’t available to most Americans.
Obama “just moved the goalpost again. Significantly,” tweeted Mitch McConnell’s spokesman.
That's really why Obama's comments posed a threat to a deal. The GOP's congressional leaders want to tell their members that if they just vote for this modest tax increase now, then they can move onto the debt ceiling, where their enhanced leverage will let them force a deal that's all spending cuts. Obama, in effect, said that's not true. He said if Republicans raise taxes now, he's going to pocket that tax increase and demand tax increases in the next deal, too.
Obama likely needed to say that. Republicans have had so much trouble wrangling their members in recent years that we forget that congressional Democrats can stage revolts, too. Earlier Monday, it seemed plausible that angry Senate Democrats would oppose the McConnell-Biden deal. Obama's public explanation of his strategy was meant to persuade them that he really means it when he says he won't permit further spending cuts without more revenues. By committing to that principle in front of the cameras, he made it much likelier that he'd stick to it in future negotiations.
But Obama's remarks exposed the inconvenient truth that the two sides are selling the deal to their members by making mutually exclusive arguments about what will happen next.