After weeks of negotiating behind the scenes, President Barack Obama came to the University of Maryland on Friday in an effort to convince the public that lawmakers could find compromise in their talks over raising nation's $14.3 trillion debt ceiling.
But hours after the president returned to the White House, those negotiations once again broke down.
In a departure from the raucous rally he held on campus during the 2009 fight over health care, Obama spoke to about 1,000 students inside the relatively intimate Ritchie Coliseum, reiterating his desire for an agreement that includes budget cuts and revenue increases. He pressured House Republicans to take advantage of the "rare opportunity" to slash budget deficits by trillions of dollars.
"Americans chose a divided government, but they didn't choose a dysfunctional government," said Obama, who appeared on stage with his shirt sleeves rolled up. "So there will be a time for political campaigning, but right now this debate shouldn't be about … scoring political points."
The message, however, did little to soothe the pitched battle playing out in Washington. Citing the fragile economy, Republicans have steadfastly opposed any attempt to raise taxes. House Speaker John Boehner doubled down on that position Friday by backing out of talks on the debt limit.
"A deal was never reached, and was never really close," the Ohio Republican wrote his colleagues in a letter that his office also distributed to reporters. "In the end, we couldn't connect. Not because of different personalities, but because of different visions for our country."
Obama, Boehner and other political leaders have been negotiating at the White House for weeks in hopes of breaking the gridlock before Aug. 2. Treasury Department officials have warned that the U.S. could default on its obligations if a deal is not struck by then, potentially triggering an economic catastrophe.
But with only days remaining, it is unclear whether there is enough time left to work out anything beyond a bare-minimum agreement. The Democratic-led Senate blocked legislation Friday championed by conservatives — and approved by the House — that would have made raising the debt ceiling contingent on deep cuts, long-term spending caps and a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget.
Senate leaders continued to discuss a fallback plan that would allow Obama to raise the debt ceiling temporarily without the express permission of Congress, while making small cuts to the deficit.
Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, who attended Obama's town hall, said he was no more confident about the outcome than he was a week ago. He speculated that the most likely scenario would be for Congress to approve some variation of the Senate's fallback plan, delaying tough decisions on spending.
"The clock always gets me nervous," said the Maryland Democrat, who was first elected to Congress in 1986 after a 20-year stint in the Maryland House of Delegates. "I still believe we'll get it done. We're going to raise the debt ceiling. We're not going to default. But I think our options are not as many as we had a week ago."
Much of the focus so far in Washington has centered on programs that generally benefit seniors, particularly Medicare and Social Security. But during the hourlong town hall session, Obama stressed the consequences for college students if lawmakers reduce deficits with spending cuts alone.
"If we take that route, it means that seniors would have to pay a lot more for Medicare, or students would have to pay a lot more for student loans," said Obama, who stood on a stage at the coliseum in front of a large U.S. flag. "Before we ask college students to pay more for their education, let's ask hedge fund managers to stop paying taxes that are lower … than their secretaries'."
That message appeared to resonate with some of the students.
"It's a very serious situation. Whatever happens with the debt is going to affect me personally," said Mace Phillips, a 20-year-old government and English major at the university. "It's going to affect the job market, the hiring practices and whether or not grad school will be worth it."
In response to a question from a Montgomery County high school teacher who asked what she should tell her students about political compromise, Obama noted that Abraham Lincoln "constantly was making concessions and compromises." He pointed out that the Emancipation Proclamation carved out certain parts of the country where people could retain slaves.
"Now, think about that. The 'great emancipator' was making a compromise in the Emancipation Proclamation because he thought it was necessary in terms of advancing the goals of preserving the Union and winning the war," he said.
"So, you know what, if Abraham Lincoln could make some compromises as part of governance, then surely we can make some compromises when it comes to handling our budget."
The town hall was Obama's fourth visit to the College Park campus and his second as president. He came to rally students in 2009 during the height of the partisan battle over health care reform and campaigned for president at the school in 2008. Two years before that, he stumped for Cardin, then a member of the House and a candidate for Senate.
An array of Maryland Democratic officials attended the town hall, including Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler, state Comptroller Peter Franchot and Gov. Martin O'Malley, who, as chairman of the National Governors Association, has become increasingly engaged in the debt issue nationally.
"People don't expect Congress always to agree, but on fundamental responsibilities people do expect agreement," said O'Malley, who addressed Democratic lawmakers on Capitol Hill this week about the impact a debt crisis would have on states.
The president referred three times to Frank Kratovil, the former Eastern Shore congressman who was swept into office by the Democratic wave Obama helped to build in 2008. Kratovil, who spoke with the president briefly after the event, lost his re-election bid last year to Republican Rep. Andy Harris.
He says he has not decided whether to run for the seat again in 2012.
Though the president's opening remarks focused on the debt and the economy, he received a wide range of questions from students on issues including the war on drugs, religious discrimination and whether he had any regrets since taking office.
Aaron Kaufman, a University of Maryland senior with cerebral palsy, implored the president to protect disability funding as part of whatever deficit-reduction deal emerges.
"The issue is we need the vital therapies that Medicaid provides," Kaufman said. "Please don't leave us holding the bag."
Noting his father-in-law's struggle with muscular dystrophy, Obama emphasized the "enormous potential that so many people have, if they just get a little bit of extra help." He said that potential "had to be factored in when we're making decisions about our budget."
After the speech, Kaufman said he was reassured by Obama's response.
"I could see in the president's face that he connected with the question," said the Silver Spring resident, who said the president thanked him for highlighting the needs of the disabled. "He made the argument that I wanted him to make, which is that we can't be penny-wise and pound-foolish."
Outside the event, a small group of protesters braved the oppressive heat and held signs asking Obama to push for immigration reform — in particular, a bill that failed to advance in the Senate last year that would create a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants who attend college and meet other requirements. The president is "not living up to" his commitment to support the measure, said Charles Brodell, 18, of Salisbury.
Diana Gibson, a 47-year-old caterer from Lanham, said she was generally pleased with Obama's performance, but she nevertheless left the event with questions. "I wanted him to identify the social programs that he's willing to negotiate on and why they merit consideration," she said.
The lack of specifics was no surprise, given the instability of the negotiations. But after Boehner's decision to walk away from the table, Obama held an unscheduled news conference at the White House in which he said Democrats had offered $1 trillion in cuts to discretionary spending and $650 billion in reductions to Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.
Obama demanded that congressional leaders return to the White House on Saturday.
"We have now run out of time," Obama said. "We've got to get it done. It is not an option not to do it."