Back at center of debt debate, Obama faces politically precarious task

He tried to coax lawmakers into striking a grand deficit-reducing bargain. Then he tried disappearing for a week to let Congress figure it out.

Neither approach worked.

Now, with time running out before a possible U.S. government default, President Obama is back at the center of the drama. Only this time, he’s been dragged back on terms that are anything but his own. Now he’s forced to try to come up with a solution over the next 48 hours that has not been apparent in weeks of negotiations.

The announcement of Obama’s reemergence came late Saturday — not in a triumphant announcement from the White House but from Republican congressional leaders who suddenly seemed eager to hand the baton back to a president they have spent weeks accusing of failing to lead.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) revealed that he had spoken Saturday with Obama and Vice President Biden and that he was confident that a deal was possible. House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) agreed, saying that “we’re dealing with reasonable, responsible people.”

As the GOP leaders spoke, Obama and Biden huddled for about 90 minutes at the White House with Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) — presumably to see what maneuvering room, if any, the president might have in his talks with Republicans.

How Obama handles himself between now and Tuesday has implications for the country’s economy and for his own seemingly fragile political standing, which has taken a hit in recent polls as voters grow more dissatisfied with his economic stewardship.

Averting possible disaster and signing legislation to make deep cuts in federal spending could hand Obama a quick boost — particularly with the independents who supported him in 2008 but appear to be favoring a Republican in next year’s election.

But success means achieving a politically precarious task: finding a formula to win over battle-weary skeptics in both parties and marginalize purist tea party conservatives and liberal Democrats.

Even ending the immediate crisis is likely to set the stage for more difficult battles this year over trimming entitlements and raising taxes — a process laid out in both the House and Senate bills that seemed to be forming the basis for eleventh-hour negotiations.

“There’s very little room for miscalculation here,” Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), the senior Democrat on the House Budget Committee, said of the president’s role.

The most difficult question facing Obama may come down to how much farther to the right he is willing to move when it comes to enforcing calls for deeper cuts, particularly to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, and for eliminating special tax breaks and exemptions.

The White House and lawmakers agree in general that a bipartisan commission should be formed as part of any deal to explore those dicier propositions as the second step in addressing the debt, probably by the end of this year. Obama and lawmakers must now agree on what type of “trigger” to establish to force deficit reductions if the commission process were to fail.

Where will Obama draw the line when it comes to enforcing cuts vs. requiring tax increases?

He has repeatedly called for a “balanced” approach, meaning cuts and revenue increases. In remarks Friday, the president said he was ready to support “some kind of enforcement mechanism to hold us all accountable for making these reforms . . . if it’s done in a smart and balanced way.”

Van Hollen said Obama risks losing support from House Democrats — whose votes will be needed to make up for conservatives likely to vote against any deal — if they think he has agreed to something that does not appear balanced.

“I’m not saying the president should stand his ground with respect to his ideal position,” Van Hollen said. But a deal “has to meet the measure of balance. Of course, different people will measure that differently.”

White House officials were tight-lipped about the president’s intentions. They have said in recent days that Obama spent much of the week with his aides working through endgame scenarios.

It remains to be seen whether the president will need to use them.

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