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Story Last modified at 3:15 p.m. on Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Obama's 'Bully Pulpit' approach is risky


President Barack Obama is taking a risky step, both politically and legislatively, in attempting to bargain with Republicans in public as well as around a White House conference table. His frequent public comments on contentious debt-limit talks could backfire, further poisoning the bargaining process.

At the same time, those high-profile bipartisan talks have yet to produce a breakthrough and have served to highlight serious differences within both parties.

Obama's decision to speak over the heads of Congress follows a pattern used by other presidents, some more effectively than others, in attempting to rally public support. Harry Truman scored points railing against a "do-nothing" Congress in the late 1940s. And Bill Clinton managed to mostly blame Republicans, led by then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich, for government shutdowns in late 1995 and early 1996.

With a presidential election looming next year, Obama's outreach was an attempt to burnish himself as the one ready to compromise — willing to take heat even from some in his own party for a deal that could keep the nation from plunging back into economic chaos — while appealing to Republican leaders to do the same.

"The risk is that he becomes more closely identified with the crisis, and if things don't work out, then the likelihood that the blame gets put on him is greater," said Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University.

That's a huge risk, given the likely impact on next year's presidential election.

"But it's a calculated risk on his part," added Baker. "If he can continue to present himself as reasonable and the Republicans as intransigent, politically, at least, he wins."

Speaking Monday at a televised news conference just hours before Monday's negotiating session, Obama said he wouldn't support a short-term deficit-cutting deal and continued to press for a more ambitious agreement involving tax increases. Obama said both sides have to give. "If not now, when?"

"If we think it's hard now, imagine how these guys are going to be thinking six months from now in the middle of election season, when they're all up. It's not going to get easier, it's going to get harder," Obama said. "So we might as well do it now: Pull off the Band-Aid, eat our peas."

Monday's negotiating session lasted about 90 minutes and, like one the day before, ended with no sign of progress.

Both Democratic and Republican leaders agree the U.S. shouldn't be allowed to default on its obligations, which could skyrocket interest rates, send stock markets plunging and shatter faith in the world's No. 1 economy. However, a deal has been thwarted by tea-party backed conservatives opposed to any tax increases and liberal Democrats opposed to cuts in Medicare and Social Security.

There is always the bully pulpit of the presidency, and Obama clearly was using it on Monday.

A president can get attention just by going before the cameras — something not lost on House Speaker John Boehner. The Ohio Republican's office issued two email news releases while the president was speaking, and Boehner called his own news conference for just before the White House talks convened.

"Listen, I agree with the president that we cannot allow our nation to default on our debt. But to prevent a default, a bill must pass the Congress," Boehner told reporters. And a bill containing tax increases like those sought by the president "can't pass the House of Representatives," the speaker asserted.

At issue is the government's ability to borrow more to pay existing debt obligations and to run certain day-to-day operations. The U.S. blew past the existing $14.3 trillion borrowing limit on May 16. The Treasury Department has used accounting footwork to keep accounts in the black, but says the government could begin defaulting on its obligations Aug. 2 if the debt ceiling isn't increased.

Obama has pressed for an ambitious package that would trim $4 trillion from deficits over the next decade — about $1 million of it from higher taxes. Many Republicans are pressing for a smaller package that does not include such tax measures.

The debt ceiling was raised six times during the George W. Bush administration. But this year it's become a pitched ideological battleground.

Obama's hand was complicated by Friday's bleak jobs report showing the nation added just 18,000 jobs in June as the unemployment rate ticked up to 9.2 percent from 9.1 percent in May. That played to GOP assertions that it's no time to raise taxes. Obama's job has also been strained by a widespread lack of public understanding of debt limit dynamics.

A recent Associated Press-GfK poll found 41 percent opposed to raising the borrowing limit, while 38 percent were in favor. A poll by the Pew Research Center, conducted the first week in July, found that nearly 1 in 5, or 18 percent, said they understood the issue "very well," 37 percent said they understood it "fairly well."

"There is no question that the public has not been highly engaged and doesn't understand the ins and outs of this debate," said Pew director Andrew Kohut. "Many of them are very unaware of what the implications are and what's at stake."

Exit polls from last year's midterms, where Republicans won the House and gained seats in the Senate, suggested Republicans did well because many voters thought that: government was intruding too much; Washington wasn't working; and reducing federal budget deficits and job creation should become important priorities for the new Congress.

Obama is trying to both sway public opinion and educate people on the perils of a U.S. default in his public comments.

However, "he came in too late. And he didn't come in with enough firepower," said James Thurber, a political scientist at American University. "Obama sometimes thinks his words persuade people to do things they do not want to do. I think he over relies on speeches."

Tom Raum covers politics and economics for The Associated Press.

This article published in The Alaska Star on Wednesday, July 13, 2011.