What was billed last night as a White House press conference on rising energy prices today became a venue for President Obama to voice his concern about the tsunami that devastated Japan. But by the time he left the auditorium at the Old Executive Office Building, Obama had covered much more—from the ongoing budget battles with House Republicans to his efforts to drive Libyan strongman Muammar al-Gaddafi out of power.
This afternoon and into the evening, there will be a lot of analysis of what Obama told the White House Press Corps. But two things are clear so far from today’s session: first, that Obama is clearly ready for war with House Republicans over large budget cuts and is taking a stand that will help restore his standing with the liberal Democratic base, and two, in the coming days, he is going to step up his efforts in the “Gaddafi Must Go” campaign.
Although he readily stated that both parties in Congress have to sit down and compromise on where they will cut the budget, and that “it shouldn’t be that difficult,” Obama nonetheless made the process a little more difficult by spelling out what he would not accept in a spending package that comes to his desk.
“I will not accept cutting, for example, Pell Grants,” he declared, noting that the the federal education program would be cut in half next year by Republican budget plans. He also said it “doesn’t make sense” for House GOPers to call for eliminating 200,000 Project Head Start jobs and laying off 50,000 teachers.
In later restating his rock-solid commitment to the Head Start program—a legacy of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society that Republicans in Congress have long been targeting—Obama also made positive reference to another liberal Holy Grail that House Republicans have called for defunding—the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Because such a relatively small amount of federal dollars goes to both Head Start and CPB, Obama said at the podium Friday, it was unreasonable for House Republicans to consider cutting or eliminating their taxpayer funding.
In short, the President began his reply to a question on the budget by calling for compromise and wound up spelling out where he would not compromise—in the process, no doubt, warming the hearts of liberal Democrats in Congress who have voiced dismay with him of late.
Obama also ratched up the “Get Gaddafi” talk. Perhaps pushed by French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s recent embrace of the Libyan rebels, Obama spelled out all he had done, reminded reporters that he felt Gaddafi was “on the wrong side of history” and that the U.S. “has not taken any option off the table”—an opening to the possibility of greater military action, including bombing, in Libya.
The President closed, appropriately, with a question from a Japanese correspondent. This gave him an opportunity to speak of his own ties to Japan, as someone who grew up in Hawaii and knows the Japanese culture.
All that was fine, and given the tragedy that the Japanese are facing, his words were moving.
But in terms of U.S. politics, Obama’s earlier remarks on the budget and those in the House who are trying to cut it will bear remembering as Congress votes regularly on what programs to fund and not to fund in the coming weeks.