The president had just been informed late Friday afternoon that Republican House Speaker John Boehner was breaking off talks over a deal to enact major deficit reduction and raise the federal debt ceiling. And there is only a week and a half to go until Aug. 2, at which points the US risks a potentially catastrophic default without new borrowing authority. The White House hastily called reporters to the briefing room, and Mr. Obama let 'er rip.
“I've been left at the altar now a couple of times,” the steely-eyed president said. “And I think that, you know, one of the questions that the Republican Party's going to have to ask itself is, can they say 'yes' to anything?”
“Can they say yes to anything?” he repeated. “I mean, keep in mind it's the Republican Party that has said that the single most important thing facing our country is deficits and debts.”
Obama said that he had put forward a package that would significantly cut deficits and debt in a way that does not raise individual tax rates. It is compatible, an exasperated Obama said, with the no-tax pledge that “a whole bunch of these folks signed on to, because we were mindful that they had boxed themselves in.”
The challenge, he said, “has to do with the seeming inability, particularly in the House of Representatives, to arrive at any kind of position that compromises any of their ideological preferences – none.”
The Democrats had done their part and agreed to compromises that were difficult to swallow, he said. Now it’s the Republicans’ turn.
“If you want to be a leader, then you got to lead,” he concluded, then turned and walked briskly from the room.
Those are mere highlights from a 30-minute primal scream, the likes of which Washington has not seen from a president known for his near-preternatural calm, both as a candidate and since assuming office. Obama was clearly fed up. And his emotion was authentic.
Obama seemed to be demanding the respect due a president of the United States. The Boehner walkout – not his first since debt negotiations began – in fact will be short-lived. Obama called on both parties’ congressional leaders to meet with him at the White House at 11 a.m. Saturday. Mr. Boehner said he would attend.
Obama also faces pressure from his own political base, which has expressed frustration that he seems to be doing all the compromising – see cuts to entitlement programs – while the Republicans insist on sticking to their “no new taxes” mantra.
A CNN/ORC International Poll released Friday showed Obama’s job approval rating down to 45 percent, in part a result of a decline in liberal support. The president’s approval rating among liberals dropped to 71 percent, a low for his presidency, the poll found. Another data point: 1 in 4 Americans who disapprove of his job performance say he has not been liberal enough.
So the president’s show of pique may have been as much aimed at Democrats as at congressional Republicans, whom he needs to believe that he means business. Obama also needs to win back independent voters if he is to win reelection next year. Polls show that independents strongly favor compromise in the debt and deficit talks.