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Obama's Hands-Off Approach To The Supercommittee

President Obama delivered remarks before signing legislation that will provide business tax credits to help put veterans back to work on Monday. (Getty Images)

President Obama has kept his distance from the supercommittee. Unlike the budget battles earlier this year, there were no bargaining sessions at the White House and no presidential motorcades to Capitol Hill.

Obama offered a road map for deficit reduction back in September, as the supercommittee was just getting started. And 10 days ago, he called the committee co-chairs from Air Force One to offer encouragement. In between, he's mostly stayed out of the way. He told reporters during his recent Asia-Pacific tour that members of Congress need to bite the bullet and do the responsible thing.

"I've put forward a very detailed approach that would achieve $3 trillion-plus in savings," Obama said. "And it's the sort of balanced approach that the American people prefer."

But Obama's road map faced the same obstacles that have blocked deficit-cutting proposals all year long: Republicans' resistance to tax hikes, and Democrats' unwillingness to cut favored programs without them. Knowing what a bumpy ride was in store, Obama stayed out of the driver's seat.

That's a marked contrast to his intense involvement during cliffhanger budget talks this spring and summer. The difference this time is there was no imminent government shutdown, and no immediate threat of a federal default.

I think it's probably good politics for him to stay out of it at this stage.
Matt Bennett, senior vice president of public affairs, Third Way

"There's no sense of a looming consequence for failure," says Democratic pollster Geoff Garin.

Sure, the stock market tumbled on Monday, as lawmakers lived down to rock-bottom expectations. But the government can still meet its minimum deficit-cutting target through automatic spending cuts. And since those cuts aren't set to take effect for more than a year, there's no immediate fallout for the economy.

Even if Obama tried to play a more active role with the supercommittee, it might have backfired.

"What Democrats and Republicans on the supercommittee have said is that it's not clear that the president's immediate involvement would be that helpful," Garin says. He adds that for Republicans, his presence would be "like a bull reacting to a red cape."

Still, Obama's hands-off approach has drawn criticism from the GOP.

"He's done nothing," former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney said Sunday during a campaign appearance in New Hampshire.

"It's another example of failed leadership," Romney said. "He has not taken personal responsibility."

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell went further, suggesting that Obama was actively rooting for the supercommittee to fail.

"You see, if the joint committee succeeds, it steps on the story line that they've been peddling, which is that you can't do anything with the Republicans in Congress," McConnell said.

The White House came to that story line rather late, after Republicans had walked away from multiple efforts to strike a "grand bargain" on the deficit. Obama showed during this summer's debt ceiling debate that he's willing to compromise and bargain directly with Republicans. But results are what matter. And when those talks collapsed, the president paid a price.

"It's not that the public is giving him or anybody else an 'A' for effort," Garin says. "It was really a low point for the whole process."

Since then, the president has been more aggressive about calling out Republicans for their opposition to popular measures to promote jobs and tax the wealthy. And his approval ratings have inched up a bit.

Matt Bennett, senior vice president for public affairs of the centrist Democratic group Third Way, still wants to see some grand bargain on the deficit. But since that's not likely to come from the supercommittee, Bennett says, Obama is wise to keep his distance.

"There's really no value in it for the president in getting his hands dirty as they muck around trying to get a deal," Bennett says. "I think it's probably good politics for him to stay out of it at this stage."

The White House says there's still time to strike a deficit-cutting deal before the automatic spending cuts take effect in 2013. But, adds spokesman Jay Carney, that's Congress' responsibility.

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

President Obama today put the blame for the supercommittee's failure squarely on congressional Republicans. He said, their unwillingness to approve higher taxes on the wealthy was the biggest obstacle to a compromise. The president vowed to keep pressing Congress for what he calls a balanced approach to deficit reduction. He also promised to veto any effort to escape automatic spending cuts.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: There will be no easy off-ramps on this one. We need to keep the pressure up to compromise, not turn off the pressure.

SIEGEL: Over the last two months, though, Mr. Obama did little to put personal pressure on the supercommittee. As NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Unlike the pitched budget battles earlier this year, there were no White House bargaining sessions with the supercommittee. No presidential motorcades to Capitol Hill. Mr. Obama has generally kept his distance from the deficit-cutting panel since laying out a plan in September for some $3 trillion in spending cuts and tax hikes.

OBAMA: An approach where everybody gives a little bit and everyone does their fair share is supported by an overwhelming majority of Americans. Democrats, independents, and Republicans.

HORSLEY: But Mr. Obama's roadmap faced the same obstacles that have blocked deficit-cutting proposals all year long: Republicans' resistance to tax hikes, and Democrats' unwillingness to cut favored programs without them. Knowing what a bumpy ride was in store, Mr. Obama stayed out of the driver's seat.

Democratic pollster Geoff Garin says the president could afford to be hands-off this time, because there was no imminent government shutdown, and no immediate threat of a federal default.

GEOFF GARIN: There's not the sense of a looming consequence for failure.

HORSLEY: Sure, the stock market tumbled today, as lawmakers lived down to rock-bottom expectations. But the government is still on track to meet its minimum deficit-cutting target through automatic spending cuts. And since those cuts aren't set to take effect for more than a year, there's no immediate fallout for the economy. Garin adds, even if Mr. Obama tried to play a more active role with the supercommittee, it might have backfired.

GARIN: What both Democrats and Republicans on the supercommittee have said is that it's not clear that the president's immediate involvement would be that helpful. The Republicans - it's like a bull reacting to a red cape.

HORSLEY: Still, Mr. Obama's hands-off approach has drawn criticism from Republicans. In New Hampshire yesterday, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney said the president should have done more to help the committee find consensus.

MITT ROMNEY: He's done nothing. It is another example of failed leadership. He has not taken personal responsibility.

HORSLEY: Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell went further, suggesting that Mr. Obama was actively rooting for the supercommittee to fail.

SENATOR MITCH MCCONNELL: You see, if the joint committee succeeds, it steps on the storyline that they've been peddling, which is that you can't do anything with the Republicans in Congress.

HORSLEY: Mr. Obama has been more aggressive in recent months about calling out Republicans when they oppose popular measures such as higher taxes on the wealthy. He stuck with that message at the White House tonight.

OBAMA: At this point at least, they simply will not budge from that negotiating position. And so far, that refusal continues to be the main stumbling block that has prevented Congress from reaching an agreement to further reduce our deficit.

HORSLEY: Mr. Obama says there's still time for Congress to come together around a balanced deficit cutting plan, and that he stands ready to work with anybody on that effort. Until there's some sign of movement, though, Matt Benett of the centrist Democratic group Third Way says Mr. Obama is wise to keep his distance.

MATT BENNETT: There's really no value in it for the president in getting his hands dirty as they muck around trying to get a deal. I think it's probably good politics for him to stay out of it at this stage.

HORSLEY: For now, the president is more focused on short-term measures aimed at boosting the economy. He'll be in New Hampshire tomorrow, promoting his plan to extend the payroll tax cut.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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