Obama Says He Can't Force A Budget Deal: 'I'm Not A Dictator'

Mar 1, 2013
Originally published on March 1, 2013 8:01 pm
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It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.


And I'm Melissa Block. President Obama has seen the country through quite a few fiscal showdowns - standoffs with Congress over the budget, the debt ceiling, the so-called fiscal cliff. In each of those cases, a last-second bipartisan deal pulled the country out of a nosedive.

CORNISH: Well, not this time. The two sides failed to reach agreement on the spending cuts known as sequestration. It's not even clear they tried. This morning, congressional leaders from both parties met at the White House for less than an hour. Afterwards, standing on the White House driveway, House Speaker John Boehner made it clear Republicans won't budge on taxes.

REPRESENTATIVE JOHN BOEHNER: The president got his tax hikes on January 1st. This discussion about revenue, in my view, is over. It's about taking on the spending problem here in Washington.

BLOCK: A few minutes later, President Obama stopped by the White House briefing room where he took questions from reporters, including NPR's Ari Shapiro.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: You know things are bleak when this is the good news.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The good news is the American people are strong and they're resilient.

SHAPIRO: Translation, brace for impact.

OBAMA: Not everyone will feel the pain of these cuts right away. The pain, though, will be real. Beginning this week, many middle-class families will have their lives disrupted in significant ways.

SHAPIRO: The president again described cuts he's been talking about for weeks in education, emergency response and defense. The difference is that this time he wasn't warning of a looming threat. Instead, he said it will happen and ripple out across the entire economy.

OBAMA: The longer these cuts remain in place, the greater the damage to our economy, a slow grind that will intensify with each passing day.

SHAPIRO: The president has been accused of hyping the damage these cuts will do. The White House has already had to revise some of its predictions about teacher layoffs and airplane delays. But Obama insisted that he's not scaremongering.

OBAMA: Now that Congress has left, somebody's going to be vacuuming and cleaning those floors and throwing out the garbage. They're going to have less pay. The janitors, the security guards, they just got a pay cut and they've got to figure out how to manage that. That's real.

SHAPIRO: While Obama's message was bleak, he also seemed calm and even a bit jocular. He tossed reporters' questions back at them.

OBAMA: What more do you think I should do?

SHAPIRO: When he talked about his persuasive power, Obama searched his pockets.

OBAMA: Well, I'd like to think I've still got some persuasive power left, let me check.

SHAPIRO: And when a reporter asked why Obama can't lock congressional leaders in the room to get a deal, the president shrugged, saying I'm not a dictator.

OBAMA: So, ultimately, if Mitch McConnell or John Boehner say we need to go to catch a plane, I can't have Secret Service block the doorway.

SHAPIRO: A minute later, Obama expressed his frustration at what he called the conventional wisdom in Washington.

OBAMA: That I should somehow, you know, do a Jedi mind meld with these folks and convince them to do what's right.

SHAPIRO: Jedi was soon trending on Twitter. Obama kept circling back to the same logjam. The American people agree with the president's solution to the problem, combining spending cuts with tax revenues. Even a majority of Republican voters support that approach. But Republicans in Congress do not, so a big part of the president's news conference today was more finger-pointing.

OBAMA: What doesn't make sense and 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.

SHAPIRO: The president seemed to have a hard time identifying a path out of this crisis cycle. He appealed to what he called a caucus of common sense among lawmakers.

OBAMA: It's just, it's a silent group right now and we want to make sure that their voices start getting heard. In the coming days and the coming weeks, I'm going to keep on reaching out to them, both individually and as groups of senators or members of the House and say to them, let's fix this.

SHAPIRO: Even as the sequester starts churning into action, a far greater storm is looming. At the end of this month, another deadline threatens. If Congress doesn't extend spending authority, the government could stop making cuts and simply start shutting down. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, the White House. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.