With the shutdown in its second week, President Obama chose the White House briefing room to lay out, once again, his strategy of no negotiations until the government is opened and the threat of defaulting on the debt removed. But he did leave a little wiggle room for a possible way out of the stalemate. He urged House Speaker John Boehner to put a resolution on the floor that would fund the government if only for a short time, a measure the president believes could pass with the necessary 218 votes. “And they can attach some process to that that gives them some certainty, if my word isn’t good enough,” that he would then “sit down with them for as long as it takes” to go through the health-care law “line by line.” But Obama said he’s not going to “gut” his signature achievement, and he’s not going to talk about it with government agencies shuttered.
“I may have—I have flaws, Michelle will tell you,” he said toward the end of an extraordinary hour-plus press conference. “One of them is not that I’m unwilling to compromise. I’ve compromised my whole political career.” Once the Republicans lift their “threats of economic chaos,” he said, he is happy to talk with Boehner and other “reasonable Republicans” about anything. “I’ll even spring for dinner,” he said.
Obama must be feeling the heat from the Republican mantra that he won’t negotiate. Americans like their political leaders to negotiate, and while polls show Obama and the Democrats have the edge on public opinion so far, that could erode if the president looks too implacable. Asked if he is tempted to sign some of the piecemeal measures passed by Republicans to provide funding for popular programs, Obama replied, “Of course I’m tempted,” but he stuck to his position that it’s no way to run a government.
Addressing the American people, he said, “I apologize that you have to go through this every three months it seems like, and Lord knows I’m tired of it.” He was at pains to demonstrate that he had negotiated, saying he or his chief of staff had met with congressional leaders more than 20 times since March, most recently last week, and that Republicans had decided “to run out the clock to give them more leverage” to force concessions.
Another fire Obama tried to put out is the Republican claim, now part of their talking points, that default is no big deal, that Treasury Secretary Jack Lew can juggle the bills and prioritize what’s important, and that the impact will be minimal. Hearing people downplay the consequences of default, Obama said, is “particularly funny coming from Republicans who claim to be champions of business.” He said he wanted to disabuse anyone who thinks the administration has “a bunch of other rabbits in our hat” to ward off default. He rejected the idea of citing the 14th Amendment to unilaterally raise the debt ceiling and said he’s not in favor of a president “rolling out a big coin,” a reference to minting a trillion-dollar coin to handle the shortfall.
“Raising the debt ceiling is a lousy name,” Obama said. It implies adding more debt, when all it does is provide the funds to pay for bills that Congress has already racked up. “It’s always a tough vote,” he said. “It makes you vulnerable in campaigns.” As a senator, Obama voted against raising the debt ceiling, yet until two years ago, there was never any doubt that the two parties would always muster enough votes for it to pass. It’s been done 45 times since President Reagan took office in 1981. To make the consequences of default more understandable, Obama said that if you pay your mortgage but don’t pay your car loan and student loan, your credit suffers and you get charged a higher interest rate. “The same is true for the federal government,” he said, explaining that a higher interest rate on U.S. debt would add to the deficit, which the Republicans have insisted is a top priority.
Obama was scheduled to be in Asia this week attending trade summits in Indonesia and Malaysia, a trip he canceled to deal with the shutdown and looming debt crisis. “It’s like me not showing up to my own party,” he said. He has made an increased U.S. presence in Asia a centerpiece of his foreign policy. “I’m sure the Chinese don’t mind that I’m not there right now,” he said, noting that without his presence, the Chinese “can present their point of view and not get as much pushback.” Secretary of State John Kerry is in Asia ably representing the U.S., and Obama said he didn’t anticipate any “lasting damage” from his absence at the trade talks, that it was more like “missed opportunities.” There will be lots more of those before this confrontation is resolved.