The Washington Post

Obama throws opening move in this year’s debt ceiling debate

Obama’s news conference in two minutes: The president aggressively pushed his debt ceiling agenda on Monday during the final press conference of his first term. (JulieAnn McKellogg/The Washington Post)

President Obama effectively began the negotiations Monday that he had pledged to avoid, over whether Congress should raise the borrowing limit at the end of next month.

His opening bid: I won’t negotiate.

Obama used the final news conference of his first term to warn a divided Congress to raise the debt ceiling in the coming weeks or risk turning the United States into what he called “a deadbeat nation.”

Invoking his recent election victory as proof that the American people support his broader approach to taxes and spending, Obama said that, in return for raising the borrowing limit, House Republicans would receive precisely nothing.

“They will not collect a ransom for not crashing the American economy,” Obama said in his opening statement from the East Room of the White House.

President Obama held his final news conference of his first term on Monday to press Congress to raise the debt ceiling. (The Washington Post)

The president’s attempt to make raising the borrowing limit entirely a matter for an unpopular Congress to address marks a shift from the central role he played in 2011, when he was drawn into a summer-long debate over the issue that badly damaged his political standing on the eve of an election year.

Congress eventually raised the borrowing limit, but for the first time, a credit agency downgraded U.S. debt partly because of the political uncertainty those negotiations created.

This time Obama is trying to stay out of the discussion, even as he called a Monday news conference to highlight the dangers of failing to raise the debt ceiling and what he believes is Congress’s responsibility for avoiding them.

The balance Obama is trying to strike — involvement without seeming to be involved — shows how difficult it will be for the president to ignore an issue that could have such a potentially calamitous effect on the U.S. economy, which he said Monday is “poised for a good year.”

“As long as Washington politics don’t get in the way of America’s progress,” he added.

White House officials know privately that Obama will be asked to participate in the debt-ceiling talks, and they believe that the president’s victory in forcing House Republicans to raise some taxes in the fiscal cliff deal will help them exert behind-the-scenes influence over this round

Polls showed that Obama, who secured higher tax rates for the wealthy in those “fiscal cliff” negotiations, emerged in a better position from them than did House Republicans.

As one senior administration official, who requested anonymity to describe how the White House is thinking about the coming weeks, said, “We are stronger for the debt fight because we won the fiscal cliff fight.”

“That’s how we’re going to look at this,” the official said.

Obama indicated as much Monday with a strong defense of his spending priorities, a relatively liberal mix of safety-net protection and money for education, scientific research and other areas he believes will help modernize the American economy.

He said the ideological contest over his and the Republican Party’s visions of government’s role is at the heart of the debt-ceiling debate, rather than a good-faith discussion over ways to reduce the deficit. The larger debate, he has argued, should be separate from the borrowing limit talks.

Obama said House Republicans are “suspicious about government’s commitments, for example, to make sure that seniors have decent health care as they get older. They have suspicions about Social Security. They have suspicions about whether government should make sure that kids in poverty are getting enough to eat or whether we should be spending money on medical research.”

“So they’ve got a particular view of what government should do and should be,” he said. “And, you know, that view was rejected by the American people when it was debated during the presidential campaign.

Obama’s skills as a negotiator drew critics from both sides of the partisan divide throughout his first term. His opponents have called him recalcitrant, while his supporters say he too easily compromises to secure a deal.

But on Monday he framed the debt-ceiling issue as a matter of principle in executive and legislative branch relations, arguing that the country, if it is to recover economically and financially, must stop “lurching from crisis to crisis to crisis.”

“If we continue down this path,” Obama said, referring to regular, to-the-brink talks over raising the borrowing limit, “there’s really no stopping the principle.”

Obama has a busy legislative agenda to push and a small window of time to accomplish it before his reelection popularity turns into lame-duck irrelevance.

At the news conference, Obama was asked if he intended to change the perception in Washington that his administration is too insular and that, as a politician, he doesn’t cultivate enough political friends to help with his agenda.

Part of Obama’s appeal in 2008 was his pledge to rise above Washington’s partisan antagonism, limit the power of lobbyists and bring a new way of governing to the capital. But on Monday he attributed his perceived isolation in the White House to the enduring partisanship that he once hoped to change.

“I’m a pretty friendly guy, and I like a good party,” Obama said. “I think that really what’s gone on in terms of some of the paralysis here in Washington, or difficulties in negotiations, just have to do with some very stark differences in terms of policy.”

He joked that he’ll have more time to work on other relationships now that “my girls are getting older.

“They don’t want to spend that much time with me anyway, so I’ll be probably calling around, looking for somebody to play cards with me or something, because I’m getting kind of lonely in this big house.”

But, he said, the kinds of White House events where he and his wife, Michelle Obama, pose for friendly photos with members of Congress “doesn’t prevent them from going onto the floor of the House and blasting me for being a big-spending socialist.”

“I think there are a lot of Republicans at this point that feel that given how much energy has been devoted in some of the media that’s preferred by Republican constituencies to demonize me, that it doesn’t look real good socializing with me,” he said.

Scott Wilson is the chief White House correspondent for the Washington Post. Previously, he was the paper’s deputy Assistant Managing Editor/Foreign News after serving as a correspondent in Latin America and in the Middle East.

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