To the surprise of the White House Press Corps, the President came out to the regular briefing for reporters today at 2 p.m. to report on the progress of his talks on the budget with leaders in the House and the Senate. He even took a few questions from us, spicing up his surprise visit to the James Brady Briefing Room at the White House.
“We are closer than we have ever been to getting an agreement,” President Obama told us, in what sounded like a reminiscence of the politics of hope. “There’s no reason why we should not get an agreement.”
But then he turned to the highly partisan rhetoric that has become almost a staple of recent Obama news conferences, speeches, and appearances in the briefing room. The only roadblock between where the White House and Republicans on Capitol Hill are now and agreement on a budget is, in Obama’s words, “whether politics or ideology are going to get in the way of preventing a government shutdown. . . . . At a time when the economy is just beginning to grow, where we’re just starting to see a pickup in employment, the last thing we need is a disruption that’s caused by a government shutdown.”
He added that the budget could have been finalized “two months ago or could have gotten done last month,” but was not, “simply because of politics.”
Ironically, in one of the handful of questions from reporters he later answered, Obama said he didn’t think “the American people are interested in blaming somebody” in the event of a government shutdown if no agreement is finalized by Friday,” moments after commenting that the budget agreement is being held up “simply because of politics.”
Without actually fingering conservative Republicans in the House as the culprits behind the looming government shutdown in three days, the President went on in a subsequent answer to a reporter’s question to define what he meant by “politics” in the budget negotiations. In his words, “[W]e can’t be using last year’s budget process to have arguments about abortion, to have arguments about the Environmental Protection Agency, to try to use this budget negotiation as a vehicle for every ideological or political difference between the two parties. That’s what the legislature is for, to have those arguments, but not stuff it all into one budget bill.”
This, of course, was a not-so-veiled reference to efforts by conservatives in the House GOP ranks to cut off federal funding for Planned Parenthood and roll back the tax dollars used for enforcement of dictums by the EPA—in other words, to stop federal spending on what they feel has no need to be subsidized by taxpayers.
In his final answer to a reporter, Obama showed his own brand of “politics,” that is, holding up a budget agreement and making a government shutdown an increasing possibility. What he would not budge on, Obama emphasized, “is to go out there and say we’re going to cut another 60,000 head slot starts—Head Start slots. We’re not going to be willing to go out there and say that we’re going to cut medical research. We’re not going to cut those things that we think are absolutely vital to the growth of the American economy and putting people back to work.”
Curiously, as he did in his last news conference three weeks ago, and as White House Press Secretary Jay Carney has done on several occasions since, the President used Head Start as an example of what he considered non-negotiable—the federal education program for preschoolers on which $164 billion has been spent since it was created in 1965 and of which Obama’s own Health and Human Services Department and General Accountability Office last year issued highly critical reports on performance and management.
If government does in fact shut down on Friday, Obama may have made a good point—that “politics” was behind it. But whose politics? And who will be blamed by voters may be different than what the President thinks.