The Washington Post

Obama changes tone in public debate over debt ceiling

“Don’t call my bluff,” President Obama reportedly warned House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) during a tough bargaining session over the debt ceiling July 13. “I’m going to the American people with this.”

It was no empty threat. As the high-stakes negotiations with Congress to avoid financial default Aug. 2 have bogged down, Obama has taken his case directly to the public with increasing urgency. This month, he has appeared in front of reporters at the White House briefing room four times, taken the stage before a friendly crowd of 1,200 in a town hall-style event at the University of Maryland and delivered a rare televised prime-time address to the nation Monday night from the East Room.

The gambit is aimed at winning public support that could give him an upper hand at the negotiating table, although polls suggest Americans are frustrated with the president and his Republican rivals.

With each appearance, Obama has not altered his message as much as his persona: The president verged from poised early in the process — the “only adult in the room” strategy aimed at contrasting him against a squabbling, childish Congress — to frustrated and emotional by the end of last week, when House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) abruptly left him “at the altar.” He returned to a more collected and determined demeanor Monday night as he tried to leave the public with a lasting impression with just a week left until the deadline.

Along the way, Obama has perhaps revealed more public emotion than he has during his 21 / 2 years in office.

The last time the American people saw him up close, in a pair of appearances Friday, Obama went through a dramatic mood swing before the cameras in a single day.

At a morning town hall appearance at U-Md., Obama used humor and an easy-going manner to walk the crowd through his impasse with Congress.

During the question-and-answer portion, a high school government teacher told Obama that she was having trouble teaching her students the importance of compromise in a two-party political system when they saw the partisanship on Capitol Hill.

“Are things changing?” she asked. “Do we not use compromise anymore?”

Obama smiled.

“I think you should keep on teaching your students to compromise, because that’s not just how government works; that’s how life works,” he said. “How many people here are married?”

The crowd laughed. “For those of you who are not but intend to get married, let me just tell you,” the president continued, “you better get used to compromise.”

Later that day, Boehner called Obama to say the “grand bargain” compromise to slice the deficit by $3 trillion was dead.

Obama instructed his communications team to assemble reporters, and the president appeared just after 6 p.m. Friday in the White House briefing room. He was as frustrated and emotional as he has ever been in public.

“Up until sometime early today when I couldn’t get a phone call returned, my expectation was that Speaker Boehner was going to be willing to go to his caucus and ask them to do the tough thing but the right thing,” Obama told reporters. “I think it has proven difficult for Speaker Boehner to do that. I’ve been left at the altar now a couple of times.”

Perhaps fearing that the defining public image of him during the negotiations would be one of anger, Obama appeared again Monday night, this time bypassing reporters and speaking directly to the public from the East Room.

Obama appeared in a blue suit and red tie, looking equal parts grim, annoyed and determined.

“History is scattered with the stories of those who held fast to rigid ideologies and refused to listen to those who disagreed,” Obama said. “But those are not the Americans we remember. We remember the Americans who put country above self and set personal grievances aside for the greater good.”

He added: “That’s who we need to be right now. The entire world is watching.”

David Nakamura covers the White House. He has previously covered sports, education and city government and reported from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Japan.

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