With less than two weeks until Election Day, Obama chose to highlight two issues that have bedeviled him during his presidency: the debt, which has soared past $16 trillion on his watch, and immigration legislation, which never got off the launching pad over the past three years. Both are politically significant, with the debt a concern among independent voters and immigration important to the Hispanics who could decide whether Obama carries swing states such as Colorado and Nevada.
The interview, conducted Tuesday with the editor and publisher of the Des Moines Register, the largest newspaper in Iowa, also marked an unusual moment in the president’s dealings with the press.
Obama had initially insisted that the exchange, which he conducted by phone from a stop in Florida, be off the record. Then on Wednesday, his campaign abruptly decided to release a transcript after the newspaper’s editor, Rick Green, wrote a blog post calling the interview terms a “disservice” to voters. Obama is seeking the influential paper’s endorsement.
The transcript gave a surprising glimpse of Obama as political pundit, gaming out timetables and calculations for his dealings with Capitol Hill Republicans. He predicted, for instance, that an expectedly poor showing by Republican challenger Mitt Romney among Hispanics would put pressure on GOP lawmakers to ease their opposition to an immigration overhaul that offers a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.
“Since this is off the record, I will just be very blunt,” Obama said at one point. “Should I win a second term, a big reason I will win a second term is because the Republican nominee and the Republican Party have so alienated the fastest-growing demographic group in the country, the Latino community.”
With polls in battleground states showing the race tightening to a virtual dead heat, Obama appears to be shifting away from a strategy dominated by attacks on his opponent to one that includes a rationale for skeptical voters to send him back to the White House for another four years.
The Obama campaign is distributing glossy brochures that repackage his proposals to hire more teachers, promote manufacturing and raise taxes on the wealthy as “The New Economic Patriotism: A Plan for Jobs & Middle-Class Security.”
Aides said the push to define the president’s second term also includes direct mail and a new, 60-second TV ad featuring Obama looking into the camera and laying out his views on manufacturing, energy and other issues. “Read my plan,” he says.
At the top of the priority list: a promise to forge a bipartisan compromise that reduces rampant government borrowing and makes long-postponed decisions about taxes and spending. In the interview, Obama called a budget deal “one of the best things we can do for the economy.”
“We’re going to be in a position where I believe in the first six months we are going to solve that big piece of business,” Obama said. “It will probably be messy. It won’t be pleasant. But I am absolutely confident that we can get what is the equivalent of the grand bargain that essentially I’ve been offering to the Republicans for a very long time, which is $2.50 worth of cuts for every dollar in [taxes], and work to reduce the costs of our health-care programs.”
Obama offered no details of how he would approach negotiations with congressional Republicans. But with Washington facing a January deadline to undo more than $500 billion in automatic tax hikes and spending cuts next year, Obama said, “There’s going to be a forcing mechanism to deal with what is the central ideological argument in Washington right now, and that is: How much government do we have, and how do we pay for it?”
Republicans reacted with a yawn to the news that Obama is ready to re-engage on a grand bargain if he wins the election. They noted that his proposal for a cuts-to-taxes ratio of $2.50 to $1, embodied in his most recent budget request, was roundly rejected in both the House and Senate.
“President Obama broke virtually every promise that candidate Obama made in 2008 — including his pledges to turn around our economy, fix our dysfunctional immigration system, cut the deficit and change politics as usual in Washington,” Romney campaign spokesman Ryan Williams said. “Given his history of broken promises, nobody is taking the president’s phony election year commitments seriously — especially those that he thought were being made in secret to a newspaper editorial board.”
Some Democrats and independent budget analysts were cheered by the new urgency Obama appears ready to place on the debt issue.
“I think the message is the president wants to get right to work putting together a plan to boost economic growth and reduce the long-term deficit in a predictable and credible way,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), the senior Democrat on the House Budget Committee.
But some Democrats were far less enthusiastic. Obama’s pledge to push again for a grand bargain creates an uncomfortable dynamic for the campaign’s final days, with liberal groups mobilizing to help turn out his voters while simultaneously planning a full-fledged national campaign after Election Day to oppose the kind of budget deal the president has long sought.
The AFL-CIO plans to keep its elaborate network of full-time organizers and union activists in place around the country to pressure lawmakers in both parties — as well as the White House — to steer clear of any cuts to Medicare and Social Security, according to people familiar with the plans.
The same day Obama made his comments to the Iowa newspaper, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, a top supporter, published an op-ed in Politico blasting the notion of a grand bargain as “lower tax rates for rich people — paid for by benefit cuts for Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. These are precisely the issues that are being debated so vigorously in the campaign, and voters do not want anything to do with such a deal.”
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said he had expressed concerns privately to the White House that Obama appeared to be steering clear of firm promises to protect entitlement programs.
“Unlike four years ago,” Sanders said, “the president has not been outspoken in saying he’s not going to cut Social Security.”