(Photo: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)
The day before the 'fiscal cliff' deadline and as Congress continues to work on an agreement, President Barack Obama appeared on NBC's "Meet the Press" to blame Congressional Republicans for not reaching a deal. In a panel discussion after the interview, journalists criticized Obama for not doing more to build trust with Republicans and not displaying more leadership on entitlement reform.
"We have been talking to Republicans ever since the election was over. They have had trouble saying yes to a number of repeated offers," Obama explained Sunday.
The problem has not been with the Democrats, Obama said, but with Republicans because they have been unwilling to ask the wealthy to pay more in taxes.
"So far, at least, Congress has not been able to get this [fiscal cliff] stuff done. Not because Democrats in Congress don't want to go ahead and cooperate, but because, I think it's been hard for Speaker [of the House John] Boehner and Republican [Senate Minority] Leader [Mitch] McConnell to accept the fact that taxes on the wealthy Americans should go up a little bit as part of an overall deficit reduction package," he said.
The day after the election, Boehner offered $800 billion in new revenue through tax reform, but not raising rates. Obama and congressional Democrats have insisted on rate increases. Ever since his 2008 campaign, Obama has said he wants the tax rates to go up for the top two brackets, or those making $250,000 per year, which he often refers to as "millionaires and billionaires." Boehner tried to get a bill passed in the House that would only increase taxes on income above $1 million, but with no Democratic votes, it failed to pass.
Obama repeated his concern in the interview. He will not reform entitlements, Obama said, "when millionaires and billionaires are not having to pay higher taxes. There is a basic fairness at stake in this whole thing."
The interviewer, David Gregory, asked Obama if he holds any accountability for the lack of an agreement to avoid the fiscal cliff. He answered that it was the Republicans' fault because he has moved "more than halfway" to their position. That agreement, Obama said, would offer two dollars in spending cuts for every one dollar in tax increases.
During the election, Obama campaigned on three dollars of spending cuts for every one dollar in tax increases. Republicans counter that once all of the accounting gimmicks are removed from Obama's offer, there is really three dollars of tax increases for every one dollar in spending cuts.
When asked if he would work on entitlement reform in his second term, the only reform Obama mentioned was changing the cost-of-living allowance (COLA) for Social Security so that program benefits will grow with inflation instead of wages.
The reason no progress has been made on the fiscal cliff, Obama concluded, is that "certain factions in the Republican Party" are now far outside the mainstream, but he remains optimistic that they will "eventually see the light." Paraphrasing Winston Churchill, Obama said that Congress will try "every other option before we finally do the right thing."
In the panel discussion after the interview, most of the journalists criticized Obama for not showing more leadership on entitlement reform. If Obama had shown more willingness to take on the long-term drivers of the nation's debt problem, NBC News special correspondent Tom Brokaw explained, he would have a better chance of getting Republicans to go along with a last-minute fiscal cliff deal.
"I think it would have been helpful this morning to have said, 'look, we get this tax deal done, I'm here to help on Medicare and Social Security reforms, we've got to address those,' Brokaw advised. "Instead of just saying, 'I'm going to protect the seniors who are there and the Medicare and Medicaid recipients.' Give a little something to show good faith about what needs to be done on deficit reduction in the entitlement programs."
Gregory recalled that when Brokaw interviewed Obama in 2008 he promised to take on entitlement reform before the end of his first term, but in Sunday's interview he showed no commitment to entitlement reform.
"I asked him to make a commitment for the first year of his second term, he's not prepared to do that. This is the driver, ... you're going to run out of discretionary money to do [the] things the president wants to do if you don't take on entitlements," Gregory complained.
Brokaw suggested that, since people are living longer, Obama should talk about raising the retirement age as one way to lower the growth of entitlement programs. He also argued that Obama needs to start selling these ideas to Americans, otherwise "we are going to be bankrupt, not just our children but our grandchildren."
Panelists criticized Republicans as well. New York Times columnist David Brooks, the only conservative on the panel, said that most of the blame goes to Republicans because they "they have no strategy, they don't know what they want."
Brooks faulted Obama, though, for his arrogance and not trying to build trust with Republicans.
Obama "governs like a visitor from a morally superior civilization," Brooks said.
The only House Republican that Obama speaks to, Brooks complained, is Boehner. If Obama worked harder at building relationships with other Republicans, he could build the trust necessary to pass legislation.
Obama has "got to get to the place where Republicans say, 'ok, we'll take a risk, this guy won't screw us,'" Brooks advised. "They do not feel that right now."
The rest of the panelists, including Jon Meacham, author and former editor-in-chief of Newsweek, and historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, agreed that Obama has done a poor job of building relationships with members of Congress.
Brooks also argued that Washington politicians are acting "rationally" because they are simply responding to the incentives of their constituents, who tell them not to increase their taxes or cut their government benefits, lest they lose their next election.
"The big lie in this whole thing is we've got this sensible country with a dysfunctional Washington. The reality is we have a country of people who want to bankrupt their children to spend money on themselves and they will punish any politician who prevents them from doing that ... The politicians look like idiots because they're responding to horrible incentives," Brooks explained.
If appearing on "Meet the Press" and blaming Republicans for the current impasse was meant to get the votes Obama needs to avoid the fiscal cliff, it does not seem to have worked.
After Obama's interview, Republicans offered implementing the change to the COLA that Obama supported in the interview as part of a package to avoid the fiscal cliff. Democrats rejected that offer. At the time of this publication, no agreement has been reached.