I don't always agree with Slate's Dave Weigel, but his withering piece on the willful obsolescence of the White House press corps came to mind today as President Obama fielded questions about the sequester. Obama's initial remarks were filled with inaccuracies, misplaced blame and tendentious arguments -- but that's par for the course. The "question" and "answer" session was far more aggravating. Let's review the transcript and recount just a few reasons why:
(1) The president twice made glaringly misleading or false claims about deficit reduction pertaining to the 2011 Budget Control Act:
We’ve already cut $2.5 trillion in our deficit. Everybody says we need to cut $4 trillion, which means we have to come up with another $1.5 trillion...We have a Budget Control Act, right? We agreed to a certain amount of money that was going to be spent each year and certain funding levels for our military, our education system and so forth. If we stick to that deal, then I will be supportive of us sticking to that deal. That’s a deal that I made. The sequester are additional cuts on top of that, and by law until Congress takes the sequester away, we’d have to abide by those additional cuts...
Obama has touted that $2.5 trillion statistic for more than a year, including on the campaign trail; he's a real deficit hawk, you see. Guess what that figure includes? The sequester, which was part of the Budget Control Act. Obama points to the Budget Control Act as evidence of his spending restraint, then asserts that sequestration piles "additional cuts on top of that." False. The sequester cuts represent the bulk of deficit savings in the Budget Control Act -- a piece of legislation, by the way, that Obama never wanted to exist in the first place. He wanted a "clean," no-strings-attached debt ceiling hike in the summer of 2011, but Republicans dragged him against his will into signing a dollar-for-dollar deficit reduction package. Sequestration was a major element of said package, proposed and demanded by the White House. None of these points were raised by any of the reporters in the White House briefing room. Do these journalists even remember the basics of how the sequester came into existence? Does Obama?
(2) When a correspondent asked if Obama thinks he bears any responsibility for the implementation of his own proposal, here was part of his response:
QUESTION: It sounds like you're saying this is a Republican problem, and not one that you bear any responsibility for.
OBAMA: Well, Julie, give me an example of what -- what I might do?
QUESTION: Just trying to clarify your statement.
OBAMA: Well, no, but I’m trying to clarify the question. The -- what -- what I’m suggesting is I’ve put forward a plan that calls for serious spending cuts, serious entitlement reforms. Goes right at the problem that is at the heart of our long-term deficit problem. I’ve offered negotiations around that kind of balanced approach. And so far we’ve gotten rebuffed, because what Speaker Boehner and the Republicans have said is “We cannot do any revenue; we can’t do a dime’s worth of revenue.” So what more do you think I should do?
OBAMA: OK. I just wanted to clarify.
OBAMA: You know, because -- because if people have a suggestion, I’m happy to -- you know, this is -- this is a room full of smart -- this is a room full of smart folks, so -- all right.
Evidently, the room wasn't full of such "smart folks," because nobody could conceive of a single possible course of action the president might have taken. Let me help: (a) You could have produced your own detailed plan in legislative language sometime in the last 16 months, Mr. President. You never did. (b) You could have met with Congressional leaders before, say, today; instead you hop-scotched across the country railing against Republicans for their refusal to alter your own plan in a way that suits your current preferences. (c) You could have signed one of the House GOP-passed sequester replacement bills. You might have done the same with a Senate Democrat-passed bill, had one existed. But no. Not a single member of the press corps could produce even one of these responses on the fly. Instead, awkward silence, followed by laughter. Great work, guys. Oh, and the president said that the only thing some Republicans want to do is "paint horns" on his head. Such a helpless, beleaguered victim.
(3) Behold, the president's lone acknowledgement that Republicans have actually done a few things other than demonize him and hate progress:
The only thing that we’ve seen from Republicans so far in terms of proposals is to replace this set of arbitrary cuts with even worse arbitrary cuts. That’s not going to help the economy. That’s not going to help growth. That’s not going to create jobs.
As noted above, House Republicans have passed two bills outlining specific offsets for Obama's self-described "dumb" cuts. The president seems to think those alternatives were "even worse" than the sequester itself. Really? Many of the GOP-proposed cuts were derived directly from....Barack Obama's last budget. Also, the House bills aren't the "only thing we've seen from Republicans." The Senate GOP introduced a plan that would have ceded major flexibility to Obama to make the cuts less "dumb." He threatened to veto that bill, a move that the Washington Post editorial board calls "sad" and "strange." Were the assembled journalists aware of any of these facts? Were they too scared to bring them up? If so, why might that be?
(4) The president invoked some variant of the word "balance" four times during the Q&A. Interestingly, no one thought this question was worth asking: "Mr. President, you say you're interested in balance. Why, then, did you endorse the Senate Democrats' (last minute) proposal -- which the CBO says would add tens of billions to the deficit? Isn't this supposed to be a deficit reduction plan?" These are basic, obvious, fair, challenging questions that no one bothered to put to the president....
(5) ...Instead, we got gems like this query from an NPR correspondent:
QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. President. You said, a few minutes ago, and you’ve said repeatedly, that the country has to stop careening from crisis to crisis.
QUESTION: So with a few crises behind us, and a few more crises ahead of us...
QUESTION: ... taking a step back from this specific debate over the sequester, how as the leader of this country do you plan to stop the country from careening from crisis to crisis?
This might be construed as an attempt to pressure the president into actually taking responsibility for something, but the question's phrasing was hopelessly weak and deferential. We already know why the country keeps careening from one manufactured crisis to the next: Because we've abandoned normal budget order for the last four years. If we'd had a federal budget in place, the debt ceiling would have been dealt with, the Budget Control Act and sequestration would have been unnecessary, the fiscal cliff would have been addressed, and there would be no need for continuing resolutions. So instead of asking a question for which there's a blatantly obvious answer (which just so happens to be fairly inconvenient to the president), try a slightly more informed approach: "Mr. President, you've said that the country has to stop careening from crisis to crisis. But we haven't had a federal budget in nearly four years, which has precipitated many of these crises. Not a single Democrat in the Senate has voted for any budget -- including your own -- since 2009. Why hasn't the Senate acted in accordance with the law, and why haven't you demanded that your party's Senate Majority Leader do his job?" Instead, Obama was given an easy opening to wander down the familiar path of complaining about "crumbling roads and bridges," or whatever -- as if his $825 billion program ostensibly designed to address infrastructure problems had never happened (another point on which he was not challenged).
The take-aways that you're likely to hear from today's performance are that Obama didn't rule out signing a CR with a lower baseline, that he acknowledged sequestration "is not going to be a apocalypse, I think, as some people have said," (yes, and who might those people be?), and that he conflated a Star Trek and Star Wars catch phrase. The real headline from this afternoon's briefing ought to be that many of the men and women whose job description is to ask tough questions of the most powerful man on the planet are -- for one reason or another -- very, very bad at what they do.