After a day of politicians in both parties as well as much of the punditocracy concluding that Barack Obama’s $3.7 trillion budget request for 2012 left much in question and demonstrated little leadership, the President clearly tried to reassert himself by suddenly calling a news conference this morning.
The timing was poignant in other ways. Obama’s latest session with the Washington press corps (and a national television audience) came after the lead editorial in the Washington Post dealt with his budget and was headlined “Punter-in-Chief.” As we marched over from the briefing room in the White House to the auditorium in the Old Executive Office Building for the press conference, one of my colleagues may have it put it best when she told me: “He’s trying to get back in the game this morning.”
After joking that he was giving incoming White House Press Secretary Jay Carney “one more day of freedom” by talking to reporters himself, the President proceeded to reiterate much of what he has already said on the budget: that his proposed freeze in non-defense domestic discretionary spending would cut $400 billion from the deficit over the next decade and bringing such spending down to the lowest levels since Dwight Eisenhower was President; that he would “veto any bills that contain earmarks;” that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates had already identified $78 billion in cuts in Pentagon spending; that he himself did not like cuts in community action programs for lower income Americans or in conservation programs but went along with them; and, of course, Republicans on Capitol Hill and the White House are “going to have to work together” on the final budget.
AP correspondent Ben Feller asked the obvious first question: namely, why his budget request did not deal with entitlements such as Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. The President said he didn’t see Social Security as that big of a problem, but Medicare and Medicaid “are huge problems,” and he reiterated his call for both parties to come together.
But as in the budget document and all public statements from the Administration so far, there were no specifics–not today, anyway. In effect, Obama appeared to be saying to House Speaker Boehner and other GOP congressional leaders: “Back to you, fellows. Let’s see what you are going to put on the table.” He invoked the spirit of the “tax cut issue” last year, in which “both sides had to give”–although, as he did in his State of the Union address last month, the President did take another whack at extending the “Bush tax cuts,” again voicing his belief that the top wage earners (in which he included himself) don’t need a tax cut.
CBS-TV’s Chip Reid’s question about the budget deficit going down and then rising again under the current budget request gave Mr. Obama another opportunity to “punt.” He again called for a “spirit of cooperation,” repeated that we must “get control of short-term deficits,” and agreed that there would be “grumblings not just from the Republican party but from my own.”
The latest Obama news conference was memorable in part because he delivered perhaps his briefest opening statement–just over five minutes long–called on more reporters than he has in recent press conclaves, and took more than one question from several of them. There were quite a few questions about Egypt and the developments there spreading to Iran and other countries in the Middle East. This gave the President an opportunity to speak as leader of the free world, insisting the US would not impose its will on sovereign countries but nonetheless making a strong statement on peaceful assembly and freedom.
But most of this session was about the budget. And on that point, it seems safe to say that the President came out of it much as the Post editorial characterized him: “Punter-in-chief.”