The consensus in the wake of President Obama’s press conference on Wednesday was that he was mad as hell (at Congress) and wasn’t going to take it any more.
But, with the press conference now in the political rear view mirror, the question that needs to be asked is whether Obama’s combative tone — he unfavorably compared the behavior of Republicans in Congress to his two daughters’ homework habits — is part of a broader strategy to run against an unpopular Congress in the lead-up to the 2012 election or simply an isolated incident born less of political positioning than personal pique.
Not surprisingly, Obama’s press conference won him cheers from Democrats and jeers from Republicans.
“Bravo!,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.). “This is the fight House Democrats have been making for the last six months under the Republican majority as they move to end Medicare and continue tax breaks for Big Oil.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) was less charitable. “The President doesn’t seem to get it,” he said, adding an invite for President Obama to come to Capitol Hill to meet with GOP Senators and see “why what he is proposing will not pass.” (The White House rejected the offer.)
House Speaker John Boehner (Ohio) struck a similar tone , citing the “irony” of Obama’s press conference; “His administration has been burying our kids and grandkids in new debt and offered no plan to rein in spending,” Boehner said.
The whole episode brought to mind a well-publicized incident back in January 2010 when, at a House Republican retreat in Baltimore, Obama hammered the attendees for their intransigence on his health care reform bill.
The back and forth, which was televised, was touted by Democrats as a political turning point for Obama — a sign that he was taking the fight to Congress rather than the other way around.
Obama did, eventually, get his health care bill through Congress and signed into law. But, his aggressive tone had faded considerably by the time the bill became law.
And, in the wake of his party’s midterm election losses — defeats that many House and Senate strategists blamed on the extended fight over health care — Obama tacked to the ideological middle.
The most obvious example came in December 2010 when Obama cut a deal with Congressional Republicans to extend all of the Bush tax cuts for two years — a move that liberals decried as a concession too far.
The true test of whether Obama is willing to stick to his aggressive posture will come as the August 2 deadline for the U.S. to raise the debt ceiling approaches.
At the moment, Obama and Congressional GOP leaders are playing a game of political chicken — and both have pressed down rather than let up on the accelerator over the past 24 hours.
“The key thing here is for everyone to be focused on making progress,” said White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer in an interview on MSNBC’s “Daily Rundown” Thursday. “This is a moment....If we let it pass us by, that would be a huge missed opportunity for the country. ”
If Republicans refuse to back away from their “no tax increases”pledge in a debt limit deal, Obama seems to have only two options going forward: turn the wheel or be willing to crash the car.
Polling suggests blame for a default would be evenly allocated between Obama and Republicans. But Obama would have the power of the presidential bully pulpit to make his case directly to the public while congressional Republicans would struggle to match that megaphone.
If what we saw on Wednesday is the leading edge of a strategic gambit to show Obama’s more aggressive side, he will keep the pedal to the metal even as the debt ceiling deadline rushes closer.
With Rachel Weiner