In a remarkable act of political gauntlet-throwing, President Obama castigated House Speaker John Boehner for his approach to reducing the country’s deficit, called on Members of Congress to do what’s “right” when it comes to debt reduction and issued a veto threat if a bill that does not meet his standards comes to his desk.
“This is not class warfare, it’s math,” Obama said in response to early Republican critiques of his proposal. At another point he said that GOP members should be “called out” for signing a pledge not to raise taxes ever.
But Obama saved his choicest words for Boehner. Obama said the Speaker had “walked away from a balanced package” during the debt-ceiling negotiations and added that Boehner’s approach to debt reduction was “not smart...it’s not right”.
From a rhetorical perspective, the speech felt decidedly similar to Obama’s address previewing the American Jobs Act to a joint session of Congress earlier this month.
What that means, wethinks, is that Obama has given over the idea of being the compromiser-in-chief — the prevailing sentiment of the first eight months of 2011 — in favor of taking the fight to Republicans and forcing them to respond in kind or feel the political consequences.
(As we wrote in a piece this morning, Obama is picking a political fight on his strongest possible political ground at the moment.)
And respond they did.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) derided the “veto threats, a massive tax hike, phantom savings, and punting on entitlement reform” he said were in the President’s speech and, further sticking in the rhetorical knife, added that “the good news is that the Joint Committee is taking this issue far more seriously than the White House.”
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus called the speech “a thinly-veiled attempt to score political points”.
For lovers of grand bargains, don’t hold your breath. The ramped-up rhetoric makes clear that the debate over how/when/where to reduce the country’s deficit has moved from the policy realm (if if was ever really there) into the political one.
The 2012 election may still be 14 months away but the central debate on which it will pivot began in earnest this morning.