Debt negotiations: Obama appeals to Republicans to defy the Tea Party.

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July 15 2011 6:53 PM

Hard Nuts To Crack

The president argues that Republicans are captive to an unbalanced minority.

President Obama. Click image to expand.
Barack Obama holds a press conference on the debt ceiling talks

Presidents like to say that they don't pay too much attention to polls. Today Barack Obama read them out loud. "Poll after poll, many done by your organizations, show that it's not just Democrats who think we need to take a balanced approach," he said at his news conference. "It's Republicans as well." The "balanced approach" the president was referring to is a mix of spending reductions and tax increases as part of a deal to raise the debt ceiling.

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

The polls are striking. Only 26 percent of Republicans in a recent Gallup poll agree with Republican leaders that an increase in the debt ceiling should be linked only to spending cuts. A Quinnipiac poll shows a similar result. Was the president offering a hard-line negotiating position to pressure Republicans into a larger deal? Or was he foreshadowing the campaign rhetoric he will use if such a deal isn't reached? The answer is both.

The president argued that Republicans were out of touch with the voters, an argument the GOP successfully used against the president in the 2010 election. "The proposal that I was discussing with Speaker Boehner fell squarely in line with what most Republican voters think we should do.  So the question is at what point do folks over there start listening to the people who put them in office?  Now is a good time."

The president outlined three options in his news conference: a big deal—the so-called "grand bargain" of spending cuts and revenue increases approaching $4 trillion; a medium deal that would cover the amount the debt limit would need to be raised to keep everyone from having to address the issue again before the next election; and a failsafe plan. The failsafe plan would be built upon the offering earlier in the week by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell that would require the president to ask for an increase in the debt limit three times before the next election. Republicans could vote against the increase, but it wouldn't keep it from happening. Added to the McConnell plan would be a commission, offered by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and modeled after the Pentagon's Base Closure and Realignment Commission, which would designate spending cuts that Congress could only vote up or down.

This failsafe plan would be enacted only to avoid "Armageddon," the president said, meaning a possible default Aug. 2, after which the Treasury Department would have to start prioritizing payments and choosing which of the government's obligations not to meet. In advance of such a bleak scenario, the president said he was still pushing for a larger deal, and pointed to the polls to argue that Republicans really should come to their senses.

The argument isn't going to work. Not even close. On Friday afternoon, it was hard to pull apart the string of conflicting reports about where negotiations stood, but the clouds were definitely dark. Even the failsafe plan was looking troubled.  Conservative Republicans in the House were saying that the failsafe's option of future spending cuts wasn't enough. They want immediate cuts. Administration officials were working with House leaders on a package of spending cuts to add to the plan that would appease enough Republicans to get 218 votes in the House without losing too many Democrats.

Under this gloomy view, the "balanced approach" the president was talking about will have gone out the window. That will leave him with the least attractive option—a deal to put this whole issue off till after 2012—but a political issue for the campaign. He can make the case that he was willing to anger his own base by considering a raise in the retirement age for Social Security or means-testing for Medicare benefits, but Republicans were not willing to offend their ideological base. "I think increasingly the American people are going to say to themselves, you know what, if a party or a politician is constantly taking the position 'my way or the highway,' constantly being locked into ideologically rigid positions, that we're going to remember at the polls."

This is the "wise man in the middle" posture we've seen the president take before. It's an appealing position to independent and moderate voters, who are sick of partisanship. It also helps the president push back against the idea that he is a big-spending liberal. And it helps him paint Republicans as so captive to their Tea Party wing (the 26 percent that wants no tax increases) that they are unwilling to entertain one penny of shared sacrifice.

Amid all the tick-tock coverage of the daily negotiations and dueling press conferences, it can be hard to appreciate how much both sides have evolved. Exactly three months ago, the White House was pressing for "a clean vote" on increasing the debt limit, with no spending cuts attached. Republicans were opposed. On Friday Obama argued that an increase in the debt ceiling should be accompanied by spending cuts. It's the Republican leader of the Senate who has essentially proposed a "clean vote." For all its partisanship, this debate has shown how Republicans and Democrats can easily switch sides.

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