By Sam Youngman - 06/29/11 11:58 PM EDT
An aggressive President Obama castigated Republicans on taxes, the debt ceiling and not doing more to create jobs Wednesday in his first news conference in months.
In an animated appearance before reporters, Obama scoffed at the notion that he has lacked leadership on the debt talks, and challenged Congress to stay in Washington until more progress is made.
“They’re in one week. They’re out one week. And then they’re saying, ‘Obama’s got to step in,’ ” the president said. “You need to be here. I’ve been here. I’ve been doing Afghanistan and bin Laden and the Greek crisis and — you stay here. Let’s get it done.”
Obama scolded Republicans on taxes, the biggest sticking point in negotiations to raise the nation’s $14.3 trillion debt ceiling by an Aug. 2 deadline, and suggested they were out of touch with the country.
Republicans should join him in raising taxes for “millionaires and billionaires” and ending subsidies for oil-and-gas companies instead of insisting on allowing those measures to survive and cutting funds for education, medical research or food safety, Obama said.
“I don’t think that’s real radical,” Obama said. “I think the majority of Americans agree with that.”
The president also criticized the GOP for holding up legislation to provide loans for building infrastructure or to implement free-trade agreements, which he said would help the underlying economy and create jobs.
Obama’s toughest talk yet on the debt fight won a rave review from Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who all but thanked the president for joining her side in the fight.
“Bravo!” Pelosi said in a statement. “This is the fight House Democrats have been making for the last six months under the Republican majority as they move to end Medicare and continue tax breaks for Big Oil.”
Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), in contrast, cast Obama as a president AWOL from the debt talks who didn’t understand that a package with tax increases could not move through the Republican-held House.
“The president is sorely mistaken if he believes a bill to raise the debt ceiling and raise taxes would pass the House,” Boehner said in a statement.
“The longer the president denies these realities, the more difficult he makes this process,” he continued. “If the president embraces a measure that meets these tests, he has my word that the House will act on it. Anything less cannot pass the House.”
Talks led by Vice President Biden broke down a week ago over the issue of taxes, leaving a deal largely in the hands of Boehner and Obama. So far, the two have not met for negotiations, and their public comments on Wednesday suggest the distance they must cover to reach a deal in just over a month.
Obama has been criticized for a lack of leadership on the talks not only from Republicans, but from Democrats.
Senate Democratic leaders held a press conference last week calling for stimulus measures to be included in a debt-reduction package that was meant to send a message to Obama.
Democrats are worried Obama will cave to Republican pressure on taxes and agree to a deal that would raise the debt ceiling with only spending cuts. They worry this could hurt the economy, setting back Obama’s own chances of winning reelection and damaging Democratic efforts to hold the Senate and win back the House.
Obama seemed frustrated Wednesday with any questions about his leadership.
“At a certain point, [members of Congress] need to do their job. You know?” Obama said at one point.
He characterized lawmakers as attending meetings and discussions, but at some point stepping back and saying,
“ ‘The president needs to get this done.’ ”
On taxes, Obama warned Republicans that their position is “unsustainable,” and hinted that election-year politics could force them to bend and meet him halfway.
He said it could be difficult to hold out against a deal over opposition to eliminating a tax for oil-and-gas companies, or another provision that allows corporations fewer years to write off their purchases of corporate jets.
“If everybody else is willing to take on their sacred cows and do tough things in order to achieve the goal of real deficit reduction, then I think it would be hard for the Republicans to stand there and say, ‘The tax break for corporate jets is sufficiently important that we’re not willing to come to the table and get a deal done’ or, ‘We’re so concerned about protecting oil-and-gas subsidies for oil companies that are making money hand over fist — that’s the reason we’re not going to come to a deal,’ ” Obama said. “I don’t think that’s a sustainable position.”
Obama chalked up the fervor of Republican opposition to any tax increases to politics as usual.
“I think that what we’ve seen in negotiations here in Washington is a lot of people say a lot of things to satisfy their base or to get on cable news, but that, hopefully, leaders at a certain point rise to the occasion and they do the right thing for the American people,” Obama said. “And that’s what I expect to happen this time. Call me naïve, but my expectation is that leaders are going to lead.”
The president also pushed back hard on the suggestion from some Republicans that the Aug. 2 debt-ceiling deadline is an artificial one.
“It’s the equivalent of you’re driving down the street and the yellow light starts flashing,” Obama said. “The yellow light is flashing.”
This story was originally published at 1:33 p.m. and updated at 7:58 p.m.