Obama holds another town hall on debt ceiling: How much is too much?

President Obama runs the risk of overexposure, not to mention alienating his base, if he keeps holding public chats about compromise on the debt ceiling. But he's got his reasons for being so vocal.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
President Barack Obama during his Town Hall at the Ritchie Coliseum on the campus of University of Maryland, July 22, in College Park, Md.

President Obama’s town hall Friday at the University of Maryland was a warm bath of support as he took his argument, once again, to the American people on the debt and deficit negotiations.

One man asked whether the president should just wait for the “hooligans” in the House (presumably he meant certain Republicans) to be voted out so Mr. Obama can get a better deficit-reduction deal. A young woman said to Obama: “Obviously, you’ve had a successful presidency” – he demurred – and asked to shake his hand. The last questioner, retired NBA player and former Rep. Tom McMillen (D) of Maryland, invited his friend the president to play some pickup hoops before getting to his question.

The president has been doing unprecedented public outreach lately – press conferences, interviews, town halls – as he stares down congressional Republicans over major deficit reduction and the looming Aug. 2 deadline for Congress to raise the federal debt limit.

At Friday’s event in College Park, Obama even indirectly explained why he has suddenly become omnipresent. When asked if he had any regrets in his presidency, he said he wished he had done a better job of explaining how “deep and long-lasting” the recession would be when he first took office.

“I think that I could have told the American people more clearly how tough this was going to be,” Obama said.

Now, with the clock ticking toward Aug. 2, Obama is all about explanations. He also hasn’t hesitated to praise a Republican or two when he thinks it’s warranted. For example, at his July 11 press conference, Obama called House Speaker John Boehner “a good man who wants to do right by the country.”

Such a move may be good politics. He has to keep Speaker Boehner as an ally in the process. And it shows the public that he’s willing to work across the aisle, which could lead to compromise – and the public likes compromise.

But there’s a potential downside to showing the opposition too much love: It could make conservative tea paryters in Congress less willing to go along with their leader and could also alienate Obama’s Democratic base, which is balking over the prospect of cuts to entitlements.

For now, says Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, Obama is not overusing his bully pulpit.

“While we’re teetering at the edge of the abyss of the debt limit, regular updates and even attempts to try to reframe the issue and capture the narrative work to his advantage; people want to hear what’s going on,” says Mr. Ornstein. “If this goes on for a long time, and nothing’s really happening, and he’s just talking, then you run the risk that people tune out. But we’re nowhere near that yet.”

Another important audience for the White House is the markets, and the debt-rating agencies which, if they downgrade US debt, would drive up the cost of borrowing and harm the US economy. On Thursday, Standard & Poor’s warned it could downgrade the US’s credit rating by the end of this month if Congress does not raise the debt ceiling.

In Obama’s town hall Friday, he didn’t announce anything new, but focused more on reinforcing his message: that default is not an option.

“There’s some people out there who argue we’re not going to raise the debt ceiling any more; and the problem is, effectively what that’s saying is we’re not going to pay some of our bills,” Obama said. “Well, the United States of America does not run out without paying the tab. We pay our bills. We meet our obligations. We have never defaulted on our debt. We’re not going to do it now."

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.