WASHINGTON – After weeks of dealing with hairy foreign policy issues and grave conflicts overseas, President Obama appeared ready to get back to more familiar political territory – a fiscal fight with House Republicans.
Obama, looking feisty and loose for the first time in weeks, served up some new lines and a harsh assessment of his Republican opposition on Capitol Hill on Friday at a Ford plant in Liberty, Mo.
“They're not focused on you. They're focused on politics. They're focused on trying to mess with me,” the president said from the plant near Kansas City.
The speech was billed as another installment of Obama’s push to ensure the long-term stability of the middle class. But the remarks served a more immediate purpose. The White House is beginning to ramp up its rhetoric as it tries to pound Republicans into keeping the government open, raising the debt ceiling and leaving funding for his healthcare law intact.
Obama spoke hours after the House passed legislation that would extend government funding until Dec. 15, avoiding a shutdown at the end of the month. But the measure also cut spending for the Affordable Care Act, leaving it no chance of passing the Democratic-controlled Senate. The Senate is expected to strip out the health law provision and send the bill back to the House, bringing the legislative haggling dangerously close to the deadline.
But the spending bill isn’t the only clock ticking for Congress. The government is set to reach the limit it can borrow in mid-October, which could force it to default on obligations if Congress and the White House can’t agree on legislation raising the limit.
Obama explained the predicament in an extended truck metaphor on Friday.
“I go into a Ford dealership, drive off with a new F-150. Unless I paid cash, I've still got to pay for it each month. I can't just say, you know, I'm not going to make my car payment this month,” Obama said. “That's what Congress is threatening to do, just saying, ‘I'm not going to pay the bills.’ ... So if we don't raise the debt ceiling, we’re deadbeats. If we fail to increase the debt limit, we would send our economy into a tailspin.”
Obama has made similar analogies before and polling shows Americans largely agree that not raising the limit would be harmful to the economy. Even so, Americans are split over whether Congress should raise the limit.
A recent Washington Post poll found roughly two-thirds of Republicans were opposed to raising the debt limit, while independent were split 46% opposed and 48% in favor. (Roughly two-thirds of Democrats supported an increase.)
This is the third major standoff over raising the debt ceiling. In the last two, the White House and congressional leaders have negotiated over spending cuts and tax increases to strike a deal. The White House now says it will no longer negotiate, leaving Congress to either send the president legislation raising the limit or default.
It’s not yet clear how the White House plans to hold to that threat, but Obama outlined his public case on Friday.
“I am not going to allow anyone to harm this country's reputation. I'm not going to allow them to inflict economic pain on millions of our own people just so they can make an ideological point,” he said. “But I need you to help. I need you to help tell Congress, pay our bills on time. Pass a budget on time. Stop governing from crisis to crisis. Put our focus back on where it should be, on you, the American people. … I mean, I don't know, it's like they do this every six months. Isn't it?”