In his first press conference since March, President Obama was ostensibly focused on his ongoing negotiations with Congressional Republicans about a deal to raise the debt ceiling. The president didn't announce any substantive new policy positions, but he did bring a a new swagger to the positions he's staked out. He tried to paint Washington Republicans as posturing procrastinators, and to polish his own profile in five key messages.
1. I'm doing what I said I’d do.
As the Republican field for 2012 solidifies, each declaring candidate has taken his or her best shots at Obama administration policies, both on domestic and foreign policy. Obama was pointed in his defense of his work to bring about a resolution to the bipartisan debt ceiling negotiations. The stalled talks and impasse over taxes are the result of Republican posturing, he argued, and not for lack of preparation and leadership on his part.
I've got to say, I'm very amused when I start hearing comments about – 'Well, the president needs to show more leadership on this.' Right after we finished dealing with the government shutdown, averting a government shutdown, I called the leaders here together and said, 'We've got to get this done.'... I met with every single caucus for an hour to an hour and a half each. Republican senators, Democratic senators. Republican House, Democratic House. I've met with the leaders multiple times. At a certain point, they need to do their job.
On foreign policy, Obama responded in part to chorus of criticism from the 2012 GOP contenders after he laid out withdrawal plans from Afghanistan last week, an attack that former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty sharpened on Tuesday in the cycle’s first major foreign policy speech.
In response to a question about why he avoided the word “victory” in his speech outlining troop withdrawals, Obama said he’s been avoiding framing since he announced the troop surge there in 2009.
I didn't use 'victory' in my West Point speech. I said we would be successful...Kabul is much safer than it was, and Afghan forces in Kabul are more capable than they were,” he said. “That doesn’t mean that there’s not going to be events like this taking place. Our work is not done. But the tide of war is receding.
The president also argued that he’s not only had the authority to launch the military operation in Libya, but he pointed out that the U.S. has successfully executed the mission he planed, with American troops only leading the initial phases of the operation. He did acknowledge, however, that another key objective in Libya — ousting General Muammar Gadhafi — remains.
2. I’m still the adult in the room.
The White House has been positioning Obama for months as the grown-up willing to make the tough decisions, but to make the point again today, Obama pointed to the homework habits of his daughters, Sasha (10) and Malia (13), and suggested that they’re better at completing assignments than Congressional Republicans.
They don't wait until the night before. They're not pulling all-nighters....You know, Congress can do the same thing. If you know you have to do something, just do it.
And further delay, Obama suggested, should not be seen as Republicans standing on principle. Instead, he painted them as cowardly avoiding a difficult situation.
August 2 is a very important date, and there's no reason we can't get this done now. We know what the options are out there. This is not a technical problem anymore. This is a matter of Congress biting the bullet.
3. And all these problems? They’re not my fault.
Obama knows the economy and stubbornly high unemployment rate is his albatross going into the election. And his arguments against short-sightedness fits right into this – just like incremental political wins are undermining Washington’s ability to make the tough decisions, short-term memory on the country’s economic troubles will undermine his case for four more years.
So as he has done in his campaign stump speeches so far, Obama took pains to emphasize both that the hardships of Americans are always at the front of his mind – and they took years to create, and they’ll take years to solve.
These structural changes in our economy that have been going on for more than a decade, they're not going to be solved overnight. But we know what to do. We know that if we are educating our kids well, then they're going to be more competitive. We know that if we invest in things like infrastructure, it pays off.
4. I’m a pragmatist, working against Washington to get things done.
Because he’s the adult in the room (#2), he’s willing to talk frankly about what has to happen in negotiations to get a deficit agreement before the United States would be forced to default on some of his debt obligations. It’s going to take some hits to programs he and Democrats care about, he said, but that also means Republicans can’t walk out of talks.
Call me naive, but my expectation is that leaders are going to lead....If everybody else is willing to take on their sacred cows and do tough things in order to achieve the goal of real deficit reduction, then I think it would be hard for the Republicans to stand there and say that, ‘The tax break for corporate jets is sufficiently important that we’re not willing to come to the table and get a deal done.
Obama also took that tack when he was asked about immigration. He said the expansion of enforcement tools like E-verify had to be "accompanied by a legalization program that allows unauthorized workers to get right with the law.”
We may not be able to get everything I want to see. But we have to have a balanced package.
And heading into 2012, it’s also an approach that takes some explaining, he acknowledged.
I’ve already shown that I’m willing to make some decisions that are very tough and will give my base of voters further reason to give me a hard time.
Compromise and the political dirtiness of deal-making don’t make for great campaign ads, but it does lead to results that he can tick off in stump speeches. So being pragmatic and the adult in the room (#2) — and trying to shame his political opponents into action — is also a smart political calculation (#5).
5. I’m calculating.
As much as he’s willing to make the tough decisions, he was also willing to reveal his pragmatism when it came to politics. Again, he was asked about his position on gay marriage, and again, Obama took pains to emphasize his sympathy with the cause.
I think what you're seeing is a profound recognition on the part of the American people that gays and lesbians and transgender persons are our brothers, our sisters, our children, our cousins, our friends, our co-workers, and that they've got to be treated like every other American. And I think that principle will win out.
As he did last week at a fundraiser geared to LGBT donors in New York, Obama argued that policy-wise, this is a matter that should be left to the states. And when he was asked directly about his personal position, he simply refused to answer.
I'm not going to make news on that today.
Obama dismissed the policy question — one of the most contentious civil rights issues of his administration — by pivoting to make it a media story of sorts. That made plain that on this question, all the tough talk on leading on the tough decisions didn't apply. He's not going to be forced to take a political stand before he's ready.