President Obama had a press conference this morning to talk about a budget deal. It was sort of a strange press conference, because the president devoted almost as much time, or more, to the process of dealmaking as he did to the substance of the deal.
The deal needs to happen now, he said, because as it gets closer to the election, "it's not going to get easier, it's going to get harder." This seems to me to display a kind of contempt for the American voter. Certainly one of the messages of the 2010 election was that voters wanted Washington to get spending under control. Yet Mr. Obama seems to think a budget deal is going to be so unpopular that it should be far enough away from an election that voters are able to somehow forget about it. "We want to cut everybody else's stuff and we want to keep our stuff," the president said, speaking of the American people, and taking an oddly detached approach.
At the same time, the president indicated, "Nobody's lookin' to raise takes right now. We're talkin' about 2013 and the out years." The cover story on this is that the politicians don't want to jeopardize the recovery. But, miraculously, the proposed tax increases are timed to kick in after the election. Talk about your profiles in courage.
Mr. Obama did at times display what appeared to be candor. "The vast majority of Democrats on Capitol Hill would prefer not to do anything on entitlements," he said. "If you look at the numbers and we just sit by and do nothing, then Medicare in particular will run out of money," he said, omitting his customary claim that ObamaCare had begun to solve the problem. As for the composition of an overall deal, without having to negotiate with Republicans, "I might want more revenues and fewer cuts to programs," the president said, in a line that Republicans might want to save for a campaign commercial.
Mr. Obama at times seemed to be trying to sweet-talk Speaker Boehner and House Republicans into a tax increase. "My experience with John Boehner has been good. I think he's a good man who wants to do right by the country," Mr. Obama said. "If everybody gets in the boat at the same time, it doesn't tip over."
This, "If everybody gets in the boat at the same time, it doesn't tip over" line was the money quote of the whole press conference. The ones in the boat are the politicians. Mr. Obama's basic message to Speaker Boehner is essentially, look, I'll bring the Democrats along on some Medicare cuts other spending cuts, and you bring the Republicans along on some post-election revenue increases, we'll get the deal done now, and by the election the voters will have forgotten all about it, or if they remember anything, it's how we both acted so responsibly together and showed that "this town can actually do something once in a while."
This last line — that a budget deal "would give the American people enormous confidence that this town can actually do something once in a while" — was actually part of the president's opening plea. It sure sounds like Mr. Obama has gone a bit native, when he starts referring to Washington as "this town," and makes restoring public confidence in it an argument for action.
To me, a government-revenue increase from the growth effects of a rate cut is one thing. But somehow I don't think that is what the president is talking about when he prattles on about hedge fund managers, corporate jet owners, "millionaires and billionaires," and best-selling authors. If Speaker Boehner or any other Republican elected in 2010 thinks he was sent there by the electorate to cut a deal with President Obama for a trillion dollar tax increase to pay for the trillions of dollars in spending in 2008 and 2009 and before the 2010 election, it's at best a serious misunderstanding. The voters were saying they were taxed enough already.
At one point in the press conference Mr. Obama noted that some Republicans have asked, why not just do the spending cuts now, and make the 2012 election about the revenue piece? He said the problem with that was that the cuts would have to be larger and would wind up adversely affecting "seniors," "poor kids," "medical researchers" and "our infrastructure." Mr. Obama may feel that way as a policy matter. But as a political matter, if he really thinks that Republicans putting millionaires and billionaires, hedge fund managers, and oil companies ahead of "seniors," "poor kids," "medical researchers" and "our infrastructure" is such a winning issue for him, one would think he'd welcome that as the framework for the 2012 election. It didn't work out so well for the Democrats in 2010. He clearly prefers to run against a Republican party with a base dispirited by a congressional leadership that caves in to a big tax increase. The question is whether the Republicans in Washington will go along with that.