Obama maneuvers on debt deal while GOP demands a plan

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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Republican legislators and activists want President Barack Obama to get more involved in the debt ceiling negotiations, and they fear Obama’s strategy is to run out the clock until a financial crisis forces Republicans into painful concessions.

Obama should step forward with a plan, said House Speaker John Boehner’s press secretary, Michael Steel. His “showing that we have a real plan to start getting our long-term debt and deficits under control – without tax hikes – will end some of the uncertainty that is making it harder for employers to grow and hire, so we’d like to get it done as soon as possible,” Steel told TheDC.

Obama is “just stringing this out until the crisis,” said Wendy Wright, president of the social conservative group, Concerned Women for America. “That’s definitely how they operate … if they don’t get what they want, they blame conservatives and Republicans for whatever occurs, even though it was they who delayed the negotiations.”

“President Obama is starting to engage, but it needs to be real,” said Mark McKinnon, a co-founder of No Labels, a bipartisan advocacy group, which called today for Congress to stay in session until it reaches a debt ceiling deal. “His entire schedule between now and Aug. 2 should reflect a commitment to getting a deal done.”

“Obama refuses to lead and kicks the can down the road,” RNC spokesman Kirsten Kukowski told TheDC. “He belatedly got involved in the talks but his past efforts to turn the economy around have come up short … voters can’t afford another year of Obama.”

Obama did meet with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell Monday night and also met with Boehner last Wednesday. Steel declined to comment about Boehner’s private meeting with Obama, and McConnell did not release a statement last night. Obama met with his fellow Democrat, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Monday morning.

Obama met with McConnell in the Oval Office, but only after he met with Reid and welcomed the nation’s championship soccer team, Colorado Rapids. Boehner is visiting out-of-town political allies this week, and there’s no scheduled meeting of Boehner and Obama this week.

Publicly at least, Obama is keeping his distance from the controversy, and his spokesman released little information about his priorities and goals.

On Tuesday, according to the White House’s published schedule, the president will fly to the Alcoa Davenport Works Factory in Bettendorf, Iowa. Wednesday’s agenda includes a welcome at the White House for the WNBA Champion Seattle Storm, a reception for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Pride month, and a farewell dinner for Secretary of Defense Robert Gates at the White House.

Thursday’s to-do list includes another visit to Philadelphia, Pa., where he will attended his next two fundraisers. In recent weeks, he has used the fundraisers to condemn GOP budget proposals and to tout his own spending plans.

Much progress has already been made in negotiations between Vice President Joe Biden and congressional leaders, Carney said. Those talks ended Thursday, when Republican leaders declined to agree with Biden’s call for new taxes.

“If you honestly believe the public is wondering why the president is not at every one of these [budget] meetings, you’re nuts,” Carney told skeptical reporters at the Monday press conference. “The president will be engaged…I don’t have a schedule for you, I don’t have a formula for you … [but] we will continue to push this process forward because its very important.”

Carney also used the press conference to repeatedly predict dire consequences if a budget deal is not reached and to blame Congress for any breakdown. “The United States of America must not default on its obligations, and it is incumbent on the Congress to prevent that happening,” he said.

When pressed by reporters for a detailed budget proposal, Carney cited proposals to increase taxes on corporate jets and to exclude oil-drilling firms from routine investment-related tax breaks. He also said the president had already presented his plan in an April speech at George Washington University.

That plan, which called for a spending cut of $4 trillion over the next 12 years, has not been assessed by the Congressional Budget Office because it lacks enough detail.

Obama “does just enough to show some engagement, but refuses to put any real skin in the game by rolling up his sleeves and doing the hard work of governing,” said Scott Stanzel, a former press aide for President George W. Bush. “He is trying to risk as little as possible in hopes that he can take maximum credit after the actual work of addressing the massive debt is resolved.”

Obama is avoiding the negotiations because his absence concentrates media and public attention on Republicans, not Democrats, said Wes Anderson, a partner of OnMessage Inc., a polling firm in Crofton, Md., that mostly works for GOP candidates. “When the president is only tangentially in the conversation, that’s good for them, it’s not good for us.”

The debt ceiling controversy is politically critical because it is likely to have an impact on the 2012 election, not just on the economy and the government’s balance sheet. Obama is already riding low in the polls, and the Democrats’ Senate majority would also be lost if voters elect Republicans to four of the 23 Democrat seats up for election in 2012.

Republicans worry their fired-up base will lose heart if the GOP fails to win a good deal on the debt ceiling. They’re less likely to get a good deal if Obama slow-rolls the talks until a financial crisis arrives in late July, said Republicans.

In such a crisis, administration officials can allocate budget cuts and direct media coverage to maximize the political pain for Republicans, said a GOP Senate staffer. The resulting public anger would likely pressure Republicans into a deal that splits their base, the staffer said.

Democrats have already used that strategy during government-shutdown talks in April and in the mid-1990s, he said. Democrats “believe if we get to the [August 2] deadline and there’s no deal there would be panic in the [financial] markets, and the voters will blame the Republicans,” Anderson said.

Anita Dunn, a senior Democratic lobbyist and former Obama aide, told ABC’s This Week that “the energy in the Tea Party” is compatible with any budget-deal acceptable to mainstream Americans.

GOP activists also worry that a mishandled deal could also prompt swing voters to shift from anti-Obama attitudes to an anti-incumbent mood. “The real questions is if there is [only] $2 trillion in budget cuts, do we meet the expectations among independents and Republicans that we have done what we need to do?” said Anderson, who conducted a mid-June poll of 1,000 likely voters for the small-government group, Let Freedom Ring. The poll, he said, shows that swing voters want “$2 trillion plus something that shows permanency, that shows systematic change and and reform,” he said.

Republicans should end the closed-door meeting and prod Obama into public negotiations well in advance of the Aug 2. deadline, said Wright. Public talks will allow the public to vet proposals made by Republicans and Democrats, and to help avert last-minute crises, failed proposals and political risk, she said.

If Republicans manage the debt negotiations well, Anderson said, the 2012 election ”will be an anti-Democratic cycle, but if we don’t live up to the expectations of the voters, it will be anti-incumbent.”

Democrats, however, focus on polls that show support for tax increases.

An April New York Times/CBS News poll, for example, showed that 72 percent of respondents supported tax increases on people earning more than $250,000 a year. In recent days, several top Democrats, including Biden and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, have said the budget talks should raise taxes.

Meanwhile, the president is using his fundraising speeches to gradually shape the the public debate. “The notion that [the wealthy] should not have to pay a little more; the notion that [wealthy people] would get a $200,000 tax break, and as a consequence of that tax break, hundreds of kids might not be able to go to Head Start, or… senior citizens might end up having to pay thousands of dollars more for their Medicare… that’s not who I think we are,” Obama told attendees at a June 23 fundraiser. The event was attended mostly by African-Americans, who paid $100 for their tickets to the Broadway Theatre in New York.

White House spokesman Carney repeated the same message in the June 24 press-conference. “We won’t support an approach that gives millionaires and billionaires $200,000 in tax cuts annually while 33 seniors pay for that with a $6,000 per person increase in their Medicare costs.  We just don’t believe that that’s a fair or balanced approach to solving this problem.”

“There seem to a lot of slow-walking” of the negotiations by the White House, said a Republican Senate staffer. “It brings us ever closer to the Aug 2 [crisis] date, and it is perfectly consistent with them planning to wait until the last minute to negotiate.”

Watch Obama to meet with Senate leaders on debt limit: