Anyone who reads this blog on a regular basis understands that my biggest problem, bordering on hysteria, with the mainstream press is its members’ strict adherence to the mindless dogma that, directly or indirectly, creeps into nearly every story about the political dysfunction in Washington: Both sides are guilty.
On Friday, President Obama spoke to reporters about the sequester. This odd but entertaining press conference perfectly illustrated just why it is that Republicans don’t pay a steep political price for paralyzing Congress and slowing down the economic recovery.
The President opened with a statement that was over 1000 words long, praising the American people for their strength and resiliency, which they will need to keep the economic recovery going, given that they won’t get any help from the Republican Party.
Mr. Obama labeled sequestration—now in effect—as “a series of dumb, arbitrary cuts” that were both “unnecessary” and “inexcusable.” He said the “slow grind” of the sequester will do damage to the economy, intensifying over time, killing 750,000 jobs and shaving more than “one-half of 1 percent” from our GDP.
And guess what? President Obama, because someone has to tell folks what is really going on, told folks the truth. He told them that whatever pain they may suffer over the coming weeks and months has a direct and unmistakable cause:
It’s happening because of a choice that Republicans in Congress have made.
It couldn’t have been expressed any clearer than that. Republicans have made a choice: to once again put the interests of wealthy taxpayers— disproportionately the beneficiaries of most of the tax code loopholes that the President wants to close—ahead of the interests of the country at large. That’s it. That’s what’s happening.
So, what do you suppose was the first question that was asked at the press conference? Come on, you know by now:
How much responsibility do you feel like you bear for these cuts taking effect?
Yep, that was the first question. It was asked by Julie Pace of the Associated Press. And I’m sure if any other reporter were given the chance to ask the first question, it would have sounded much like hers, perhaps like this:
Mr. President, it just can’t be all the other guy’s fault, right? That just can’t be because we in the press know that both sides are to blame for what’s happening. Isn’t that right, Mr. President? So, come on and tell us how much of the fault is yours. Come on, you can do it. Tell us.
To his credit, the President fought back hard against the notion that he should share the blame for what is going on in our government. Using yet another 1000 words, he told Julie Pace that he had already signed off on deficit-reducing cuts, to the tune of $2.5 trillion. He told her he was “prepared to take on the problem where it exists — on entitlements — and do some things that my own party really doesn’t like — if it’s part of a broader package of sensible deficit reduction.”
And he reiterated what he had said earlier:
But what is true right now is that the Republicans have made a choice that maintaining an ironclad rule that we will not accept an extra dime’s worth of revenue makes it very difficult for us to get any larger comprehensive deal. And that’s a choice they’re making. They’re saying that it’s more important to preserve these tax loopholes than it is to prevent these arbitrary cuts.
There’s that word “choice” again. Republicans have made a choice. Republicans have made a choice, Julie.
President Obama ended his answer to her question with this:
…the one key to this whole thing is trying to make sure we keep in mind who we’re here for. We are not here for ourselves, we’re not here for our parties, we’re not here to advance our electoral prospects. We’re here for American families who have been getting battered pretty good over the last four years, are just starting to see the economy improve; businesses are just starting to see some confidence coming back. And this is not a win for anybody, this is a loss for the American people.
And, again, if we step back and just remind ourselves what it is we’re supposed to be doing here, then hopefully common sense will [win] out in the end.
Now, what do you suppose Julie Pace followed up with? Yep, you got it:
It sounds like you’re saying that this is a Republican problem and not one that you bear any responsibility for.
What do you say to someone like that? What to you say to a journalist who insists that no matter what the evidence says, she must adhere to the both-sides-are-guilty dogma at all costs? If she thought the President deserved some blame, she should have asked him about something specific she thought he did to deserve that blame. Like: “You remember that time you hid John Boehner’s tanning lotion at the golf course? Is that why he won’t make a deal?” Or something like that.
But you see, Julie Pace was not asking that question thinking that the President would actually answer it. She wasn’t expecting him to say,
You know, Julie, I’ve come to a conclusion. I guess I am to blame for what’s going on in this town. Yeah, I’m to blame. God gave me pigmented skin and my parents gave me a funny name and an exotic background. I really had no business coming to Washington and disturbing all these nice white folks in Congress.
What was I thinking?
No, Julie Pace knew Mr. Obama wouldn’t say anything like that or otherwise take the blame for the dysfunction that is threatening to ruin his second term, not to mention the country. But she knew that asking that question is part of the Beltway press liturgy. It’s how journalists these days prove they belong. She, by God, is a true-believer in the both-sides-are-guilty dogma.
The President responded to her question in this unusual way:
MR. OBAMA: Well, Julie, give me an example of what I might do.
JULIE PACE: I’m just trying to clarify your statement.
MR. OBAMA: Well, no, but I’m trying to clarify the question. What I’m suggesting is, I’ve put forward a plan that calls for serious spending cuts, serious entitlement reforms, goes right at the problem that is at the heart of our long-term deficit problem. I’ve offered negotiations around that kind of balanced approach. And so far, we’ve gotten rebuffed because what Speaker Boehner and the Republicans have said is, we cannot do any revenue, we can’t do a dime’s worth of revenue.
So what more do you think I should do? Okay, I just wanted to clarify. (Laughter.) Because if people have a suggestion, I’m happy to — this is a room full of smart folks.
After that the President turned to another reporter, but he had made his point: “What more do you think I should do?” A damn good question. And all the people claiming he is to blame for what we see should have to answer it.
A little bit later, the President had this strange exchange with Jessica Yellin of CNN:
YELLIN: Mr. President, to your question, what could you do — first of all, couldn’t you just have them down here and refuse to let them leave the room until you have a deal? (Laughter.)
THE PRESIDENT: I mean, Jessica, I am not a dictator. I’m the President. So, ultimately, if Mitch McConnell or John Boehner say, we need to go to catch a plane, I can’t have Secret Service block the doorway, right? So –
YELLIN: But isn’t that part of leadership?
Ah, there it was. The B-side of the both-sides-are-guilty tune. The President, don’t you know, should lead. That’s what leaders do, right? They lead. If he were leading, there’d be a deal. Every journalist, especially those who follow the lead of Bob Woodward, knows that. And if they don’t know that, Republicans are happy to tell them. Republican leaders say it all the time: There’s no deal because President Obama has failed as a leader.
Apparently the President should somehow find a way to make Republican leaders, and those they lead, bend to his will. He should find a way to make them do what they have pledged not to do before God and Grover Norquist.
But since the President ruled out a “Jedi mind meld,” perhaps he should just give them what they want, give in to their demands, pay them the ransom they are asking for. Because that is the only “deal” Republicans are willing to make. Is surrendering to uncompromising zealots the answer to the question Mr. Obama posed to Julie Pace: “What more do you think I should do?”
Fortunately, Republicans won’t get the ransom they’re asking for. They won’t get the deal they want from this president. You know why? Because there is more to being a leader than simply making a deal. Sometimes leadership means not making a deal, when the only deal to be made would be a bad deal.
And President Obama, during Friday’s amazing press conference, assured us he won’t enter into a one-sided bargain with Republican hostage-takers:
But what I can’t do is ask middle-class families, ask seniors, ask students to bear the entire burden of deficit reduction when we know we’ve got a bunch of tax loopholes that are benefiting the well-off and the well-connected, aren’t contributing to growth, aren’t contributing to our economy. It’s not fair. It’s not right. The American people don’t think it’s fair and don’t think it’s right.