Obama carefully backs debt-ceiling deal

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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President Barack Obama used a brief Sunday night appearance to appeal to independent voters and to distance himself from the debt ceiling compromise hashed out by leaders in Congress — even while indicating he would sign it.

“Is this the deal I would have preferred? No. I believe we could have made the tough choices on entitlement reform and tax reform right now,” the president said in his short and low-key statement.

Numerous polls show that the critical swing-voting independents are alarmed at the federal government’s $14.3 trillion debt and favor some spending cuts, along with reform of entitlement programs.

Obama initially sought an unconditional increase in the debt ceiling. He shifted his goal, however, when he announced his support for a “grand bargain” that would combine spending cuts and new taxes to trim the federal deficit by roughly $4 trillion over ten years.

GOP legislators denied him that goal by walking away from negotiations, proposing instead a smaller, two-stage deal that raises the debt limit by more than $2.4 trillion and cuts spending by a similar amount over the next decade.

Obama made sure to remind progressives and liberals disappointed by the Sunday deal that he supports their preference for tax increases over spending cuts. The second half of the two-step debt ceiling process, he said, offers another opportunity for progressives to win some gains, including tax increases, which he has said round out a “balanced approach.”

“In this [second] stage, everything will be on the table … [and] I’ll continue to make a detailed case to these lawmakers about why I believe a balanced approach is necessary to finish the job,” he said.

“I believe that we have to ask the wealthiest Americans and biggest corporations to pay their fair share by giving up tax breaks and special deductions.” (RELATED: White House, congressional leaders announce debt ceiling deal as votes loom)

During recent negotiations, Obama had pushed for tax increases worth at least $400 billion over 10 years. That push, however, prompted GOP leaders to quit the White House negotiations.

A 9:55 p.m. statement from the White House said the president’s dealmaking clout during the second stage will benefit from the Jan. 2013 expiration of tax cuts championed by President George Bush in 2001 and then extended in December 2010 by Obama and the Democrat-controlled Congress. “Absent a balanced deal, [expiration] would enable the President to use his veto pen to ensure nearly $1 trillion in additional deficit reduction by not extending the high-income tax cuts,” the statement said.

Throughout his Sunday statement, Obama rhetorically distanced himself from both his fellow Democrats and Washington’s messy and combative legislative process. The debt-ceiling deal, he assured Americans, “allows us to avoid default and end the crisis that Washington imposed on America.”

“This process is messy and has taken too long,” Obama said, and “ultimately the leaders of both parties have found their way to compromise.”

Obama also highlighted a significant symbolic difference between him and his fellow Democrats, although he did not provide any details: “Despite what some in my own party have argued, I believe that we need to make some modest adjustments to programs like Medicare to ensure that they’re still around for future generations.”

Obama has tried to cultivate an image in recent weeks as a level headed Washington outsider above the political fray. This tactic may allow him to simultaneously distance himself from unpopular aspects of his term in office, appeal to swing-voting independents, and campaign as an outsider against corruption in Washington, D.C.

However, the president’s popularity among independents has slid significantly in the last few months. A July Pew Research Center poll showed that 54 percent of independent voters disapprove of his record in office.