Obama's News Conference: He Criticizes the Republicans, But Will He Follow Through?

The president's fiery speech today was the type liberals have been waiting for—since the last one.

Who was that combative president? The guy who came out swinging against tax breaks for millionaires and billionaires, for big oil companies, for hedge fund managers, for corporate jet owners?

The Barack Obama we saw at an East Room news conference on Wednesday—drawing sharp distinctions and demanding concessions from Republicans—is the kind of partisan fighter that liberals have craved for the last two-and-a-half years. Gone was the conciliator-in-chief patiently trying to see all sides; in his place was an amped-up leader determined to pressure his opponents.

The transformation, however brief, was undoubtedly born of necessity. Obama is looking at a looming debt-ceiling deadline August 2, the budget talks are going nowhere fast, and there is a great sense of drift in Washington. It’s no coincidence that Obama, who began his administration with a string of prime-time pressers but soured on the format, chose this moment to hold his first full-dress session with reporters in nearly four months.

Obama had sort of receded into the background, allowing Vice President Biden to take the lead on the budget talks until Eric Cantor, the No. 2 Republican, bailed out. Now the president seems to have concluded that he has to use his rusty bully pulpit to take his case to the public—something he has done only sparingly since taking office.

His argument: The two parties have agreed to more than $1 trillion in spending cuts, but that’s not enough and revenue is needed as well. It makes no sense, he contends, to endlessly whack away at the 12 percent of the budget that pays for education, weather forecasting, and food inspections.

Instead, the president strafed some of the Democratic Party’s favorite targets: wealthy people, oil conglomerates, and Wall Street. They should sacrifice a bit before we ask seniors to pay more for health care, Obama said: “I don’t think that’s real radical.” And in case anyone missed the point, he chided congressional leaders for a “selfish” approach.

Obama positioned himself as a teller of hard truths, denigrating Republicans who insist on no new taxes as people trying “to satisfy their base or get on cable news”—then expressing hope that they could “rise to the occasion.” He even took a swipe at Congress taking frequent recesses while he has been working nonstop on the economy and war and Osama bin Laden.

Even while ratcheting up his rhetoric against the GOP, Obama also engaged in a bit of Clintonian triangulation. “Democrats have to accept some painful spending cuts that hurt some of our constituents,” he cautioned, even if it causes his liberal base to “give me a hard time.” The country “will have to tackle entitlements”—meaning reductions in Medicare (and possibly Social Security) that his party has been denouncing with its withering attacks on the Paul Ryan voucher plan. Democrats on the Hill won’t want to cede that 2012 issue so easily.

But the little two-step enabled the president to cast himself as requiring adult behavior from both sides. “If everyone else is willing to take on their sacred cows,” he said, the Republicans can’t very well refuse to do a deal while defending tax breaks for Big Oil and corporate jets.

And he hammered home the importance of the August 2 date, saying the impact of even a technical default “will be significant and unpredictable” and that the Treasury can’t pick and choose whether to pay for, say, Social Security checks or other expenses. And the market reaction could mean higher interest rates for everyone.

One made-for-TV sound bite that is likely to be replayed is Obama’s reference to Sasha and Malia finishing their homework a day in advance rather than pulling all-nighters—again, a belittling of congressional leaders for “playing games” with the budget.

Obama’s forceful tone carried over to other issues. He brushed aside a question about whether he should seek congressional approval for the military intervention in Libya, saying Muammar Gaddafi is “one of the worst tyrants in the world” and, with a tone of derision, asking why the War Powers Act has become a “cause célèbre” on Capitol Hill. The only question he sidestepped was on gay marriage, where Obama said he was not going to make news “today.”

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The president has done this before: made headlines with a bold burst of rhetoric or soaring speech, only to let the moment pass and defer yet again to squabbling congressional leaders. This time, he has a powerful incentive to keep up the pressure: the very real possibility that in little more than a month America will be unable to pay some of its bills.