Obama plays debt-ceiling chicken

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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If the debt ceiling talks are a game of chicken, President Barack Obama today scissored his safety belt, cut his brake lines and pressed the accelerator pedal to the floor.

In a 42-minute press conference, Obama stepped up pressure on Republicans by deflecting a question about whether the White House was preparing contingency plans in the case that no deal is reached by Aug. 2.

The president denounced possible temporary measures and repeatedly said that there could be no deal without extra taxes. He also urged the approval of a massive and complex package that would include tax hikes and changes to entitlement programs.

“I continue to push congressional leaders for the largest possible deal … [and] I do not see a path to a deal if they do not budge” on taxes, he said. “I will not sign a 30-day or a 60-day or a 90-day extension,” he added.

When asked about contingency plans, the president simply said, “We will get this done by August 2nd.”

For weeks, Obama’s deputies have said that a failure to reach an agreement would tank the stock market, stall the economic recovery and boost unemployment. (Boehner: It takes two to tango)

Republicans have responded by dismissing Obama’s call for new taxes. “We don’t believe that we ought to be raising taxes right now on people in this recession and in this economy, and they do,” House Majority Leader Rep. Eric Cantor said shortly after the conference. “That is just an irreconcilable difference.”

GOP officials rejected Obama’s preference for a $4 trillion package on Sunday night, saying that Obama was using it to get GOP approval for a tax hike. GOP leaders responded by saying that they supported a smaller package that would not include a tax increase, but would allow the government to borrow roughly $2,000 billion providing the package also cut spending by a similar amount over several years.

A big package, Obama said on Monday, “would give the American people enormous confidence that this town can actually do something once in a while, that we can defy the expectations that we’re always thinking in terms of short-term politics and the next election, and every once in a while we break out of that and we do what’s right for the country.”

“He wants to create a narrative that will be soothing to the independent voter,” said Michael Franc, vice president for political outreach at the Heritage Foundation. Independent voters are a little right of center, Franc explained, and they want to see government officials solve federal economic problems without making excuses.

“They want to see people saying ‘This isn’t working, so let’s try something different,’” he said. (Boehner says president is in re-election mode)

David Plouffe, one of Obama’s senior political advisers, lifted the curtain at a June 7 press event organized by Bloomberg News. Obama will be able to win over independents with balanced action, Plouffe said, because they dislike partisan disputes and prefer Washington to “get away from the stale ideas of the left or right and focus on what’s going to be right for the country.”

Obama’s support among independents, however, has fallen to 32 percent when tested head-to-head against a “Generic Republican,” according to a Gallup poll in early June; in the 2008 election, he won 52 percent of those voters. In the Gallup poll, a generic Republican candidate earned 42 percent of independents’ votes while 26 percent declined to support either.

“Could we imagine a project where we’re rebuilding roads and bridges and ports and schools and broadband lines and smart grids, and taking all those construction workers and putting them to work right now?” he declared. “I can imagine a very aggressive program like that that I think the American people would rally around and would be good for the economy not just next year or the year after, but for the next 20 or 30 years.”

But so far Obama’s aggressive statements today have not seemed to divert Republicans from their no-new-taxes course. Shortly after the press conference ended, Cantor panned Obama’s call for new taxes, and said “if the president wants [to raise] the debt ceiling, we’re not going to go along with that if they want to raise taxes, and it just is what it is.”