President Obama sounded confident Sunday evening, issuing a challenge to fiscal conservatives who say he’s doing too little to reduce the nation’s growing deficit and debt.
“Next year when I start presenting some very difficult choices to the country, I hope some of these folks who are hollering about deficits and debt step up, because I’m calling their bluff,” Obama said at a press conference to close a two-day global financial summit in Toronto.
The president’s braggadocio came at the close of a successful few days for him. He was praised for his decision Wednesday to replace his top commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, with Gen. David Petraeus. He held a warm summit with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev at the White House Thursday.
On Friday, Democrats in Congress passed a financial regulation bill, arming Obama with a major accomplishment one day before he arrived in Toronto for a gathering of the world’s top 20 economies. In Toronto, Obama promised to move forward with a free trade agreement with South Korea, saying he will present the treaty to Congress in early 2011.
WATCH OBAMA CALL “BLUFF” OF DEBT/DEFICIT CRITICS
For the first time in weeks, the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has not been the focus. And the confirmation hearings beginning Monday for Obama’s nominee, Elena Kagan, will also likely be a boost for the president, since Kagan is expected to be confirmed rather easily.
The momentary successes, however, come in the middle of a steady decline in key polling indicators for the president.
A telling survey released by NBC News and the Wall Street Journal last week showed major slippage for the president in almost every key category regarding the public’s attitudes about his leadership, his job performance and his philosophy of governance.
Obama’s approval rating was at an all-time low in the NBC/WSJ polls, at 45 percent, while those who think the country is on the wrong track was at an all-time high in the surveys, at 62 percent. The poll showed growing doubts about Obama’s ability to lead in a crisis and increasing resistance to his policies, driven by the nation’s fiscal crisis, the president’s recently passed health bill, and his handling of the oil spill.
And the oil spill is certain to dominate the news cycle again in the coming days. Even a poll from the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, which argued that the oil spill has not significantly affected Obama’s job approval, showed a big jump in disapproval of how the president has handled the oil spill. And this survey was done after Obama jawboned BP into setting aside $20 billion for a government-appointed official to use for claims disbursements.
Some of Obama’s signature accomplishments are being criticized by those on the left as well.
Ariana Huffington, founder of the Huffington Post website, on Sunday dismissed both the $862 billion stimulus bill passed a month after Obama took office, in February 2009, and the financial regulation bill passed just Friday.
The stimulus, which Obama has said staved off another Great Depression, “does not really create jobs,” said Huffington, on CNN’s “Fareed Zakaria GPS.”
And she said that “we’re seeing this anemic Wall Street reform going through, which we all know is not going to prevent the next meltdown.”
Despite Obama’s feisty challenge to critics regarding his fiscal austerity measures, he has little to show thus far to back up his words, other than a three-year freeze of non-defense, discretionary spending, which makes up about a third of the federal budget.
The president said Sunday that pay-as-you-go rules which became law in February of this year are “starting to provide budget discipline to Congress.”
But Congress has passed several laws since February and avoided paying for them by deeming them “emergency spending,” adding $312 billion to the deficit this year, according to Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican.
“The PAYGO rules are a farce,” Coburn said.
Obama’s fiscal commission continues to meet, but will not issue a report until December. Obama’s comment that he will begin proposing “very difficult choices” next year is an indication that one of those options will be across the board tax hikes. This would violate Obama’s pledge not to raise taxes on the middle class, but Democrats in Congress have already begun to question that pledge and the White House this week refused to say whether or not the pledge remains in effect.
Then there are jobs, which are not returning at the pace Obama needs to show he is turning the economy around. Unemployment remains around 10 percent.
And despite his savvy move to put Petraeus in charge, the war in Afghanistan could prove to be a huge political problem for the president if public approval continues to slip. Despite that, Obama on Sunday gave the clearest indication to date that the withdrawal date he set for July 2011 is not definitive.
“By next year we will begin a process of transition,” Obama said. “That doesn’t mean we suddenly turn off the lights and let the door close behind us.”
Conservative columnist on Sunday predicted a “collision … between the president and his base” over the war in Afghanistan.
David Axelrod, one of the president’s top advisers, remarked to Politico over the weekend that Obama does not measure his success or failure in week-long increments.
“One day, the prevailing notion in Washington is, ‘The administration is floundering. The presidency is on the line.’ A week later, you’re on a roll. He believes strongly you can’t get swept up in these manic mood swings,” Axelrod said.
After a week of strong reviews and words of praise for the president, Axelrod’s comments could be a prescient reminder that the overall journey ahead for his boss remains an uphill climb.