With Congress out of town for the week, President Obama tried to remind the country that he’s not Capitol Hill’s babysitter-in-chief.
At a White House press conference Tuesday morning, the third of his second term, the president claimed his job was not to discipline a divided legislative branch.
The president has enjoyed multiple dinners with GOP senators, as the White House continues its broad outreach efforts that even included having a top staffer go bike riding for 90 minutes with House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif. Immigration reform appears to be a rare example of bipartisan cooperation.
But when asked how Congress resolved the sequestration fiasco that caused flight delays at major airports, Obama returned to playing the blame game. The last-minute fix to keep FAA flight controllers from being furloughed involved shifting funds previously slated to repair airports.
“You seem to suggest that somehow, these folks over there have no responsibilities and that my job is to somehow get them to behave,” Obama said. “That’s their job.… Members of Congress are elected in order to do what’s right for their constituencies and for the American people.”
Those words represent a major admission by the president, since being in the Oval Office has almost always involved some cajoling and arm-twisting by the chief executive. For proof, Obama can look at the efforts to pass the 14th Amendment in the Steven Spielberg film “Lincoln,” a movie Obama referenced in a comedy bit this weekend for the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner.
This is the state of play going forward. Obama is eager to scold Congress after the failure of the Senate to pass a bill requiring universal background checks for gun buyers – yet he acknowledges his inability to coax much cooperation out of Capitol Hill.
Channeling Mark Twain, Obama claimed the rumors of his demise are exaggerated, but – without some help from Capitol Hill – his agenda may be on life support.
The gridlock that led to the $85 billion in sequestration cuts – because lawmakers could not agree to an alternative deficit reduction back in 2011 – will be amped up.
“The only reason we’re doing it,” Obama said of the sequester, “is because right now we’ve got folks who are unwilling to make some simple changes to our tax code--for example, to close loopholes that aren’t adding to our competitiveness and aren’t helping middle class families.”
House Republicans are eager to close loopholes, but they also want to lower rates so that any tax reform does not produce a net revenue increase. Their broader goal is to use the debt ceiling, which will reach its limit on May 18, to force a deal with the White House – yet Obama did not discuss the matter in his remarks.
Before Congress departed on a week-long recess, the House Ways and Means Committee passed a measure along party lines that would order the Treasury Department to prioritize interest and principal payments if the government’s borrowing authority gets maxed out.
Administration officials have previously suggested that this would amount to a de-facto default.
At the same time, the government faces additional financial pressures. Obama noted at the press conference that the government is still weighing its response to the use of chemical weapons in Syria’s civil war.
The administration is also prepping the implementation of Obamacare – a program designed to ensure that millions of uninsured Americans can buy health coverage. “Half of Congress,” Obama said, “is determined to try to block implementation.”
Companies are already scrambling to adapt to the changes by tweaking their coverage options or paying a penalty fee next year for not offering coverage. A recent survey by the National Center for the Middle Market named Obamacare as the biggest uncertainty for business.
Whether Obama wants to acknowledge it or not, he needs a breakthrough with Capitol Hill, even if he is personally unable to deliver it.