Obama’s debt-ceiling press conference

A less than electrifying performance. I understand the difficulties and sympathize. There’s little Obama can do in the short term about the refusal of House Republicans to budge. As long as they are willing to destroy the nation’s credit standing if that is what it takes to win, Obama’s choice essentially boils down to capitulation in the national interest or mutually assured destruction. Even so, the press conference was dispiriting. Obama seemed unusually hesitant and unsure of himself. I’m not sure what he hoped to achieve by it.

NBC’s Chuck Todd asked a good question: any regrets over failing to back Bowles-Simpson from the start? That was a grand bargain, after all, based on a balanced agenda of tax increases and spending cuts–much like the proposal Obama now apparently prefers. I say “apparently” because he still has not spelled out in public a plan of his own. Asked at the press conference to make one specific proposal on entitlement reform, he dodged yet again, merely laying out criteria for what he might be willing to accept if somebody else happened to come up with a plan.

His answer on Bowles-Simpson was telling. Among other things, he said that the public is already there, so a Bowles-Simpson-like plan never needed any great effort of selling on his part. All it requires is a spirit of compromise on Capitol Hill–and a new willingness in both parties in Congress to listen to public opinion.

Rubbish. Whatever else you might say about Congress, don’t accuse it of ignoring public opinion. Both parties are attentive–far too attentive–to the contradictory strands in the public’s unformed thinking on these issues. Democrats: defend Medicare and Social Security. Republicans: roll back wasteful government and no job-killing tax increases. The public agrees with both sides. I’ve been arguing for months that the Bowles-Simpson approach–do a little of everything–is certainly capable of being sold, but a forceful champion is absolutely required. The non-partisan middle of the electorate is not yet there; and the politically energized segments of public opinion are strongly opposed. The middle needs to be brought round, and the extremes confronted and beaten back. I think it is pretty feeble of Obama to say, all we need is for Congress to listen to the country.

When he said that I also wondered: listen to the country–like you did on health care? Like you did on the stimulus? Like you did on long-term public borrowing, before the debt-ceiling crisis began? On all these issues, Obama has been mostly correct on the merits–but at vital moments he has also been content to ignore or even defy the views of much of the electorate. The rout of 2010, and the influx of Tea Party extremists, was the result. In that sense, Obama is co-author of the current breakdown in Washington.

Obama is right that Congress needs to behave more responsibly and start doing its job. But so does he.

Clive Crook’s blog

This blog is no longer updated but it remains open as an archive.

I have been the FT's Washington columnist since April 2007. I moved from Britain to the US in 2005 to write for the Atlantic Monthly and the National Journal after 20 years working at the Economist, most recently as deputy editor. I write mainly about the intersection of politics and economics.

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