(TEXT: Obama's Address to the Nation)
Clearly, Obama prefers Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's proposal to extend the $14.3 trillion debt ceiling by $2.7 trillion (enough to last until 2013) with the new credit line financed entirely by spending cuts that spare entitlements and impose no new taxes--even on easy political targets like corporate jets or oil companies. But Obama did not single Reid's bill out as the only option, just a preference. As Obama and every serious player in this tug-of-war knows, the time for preferences is dwindling and the time for least-best options is nigh.
Consider Obama's carefully worded description of the Reid bill and the way forward.
"I think that's a much better path, although serious deficit reduction would still require us to tackle the tough challenges of entitlement and tax reform," Obama said of the Reid bill, which may fail on a procedural vote on Wednesday. "Either way, I have told leaders of both parties that they must come up with a fair compromise in the next few days that can pass both houses of Congress--a compromise I can sign. And I am confident we can reach this compromise."
The compromise remains undefined and Obama made one last bid for a so-called "grand bargain," the elusive $4 trillion combination of discretionary and entitlement spending cuts and tax reform that represents the biggest possible down payment on long-term deficit reduction. Obama asked Americans made weary by the partisan strife to prod Congress with e-mails, phone calls, and social-media pokes.
"The American people may have voted for divided government, but they didn't vote for a dysfunctional government," Obama said in what may be the speech's most durable line. "So I'm asking you all to make your voice heard. If you want a balanced approach to reducing the deficit, let your member of Congress know. If you believe we can solve this problem through compromise, send that message."
Notice that a "balanced approach" and "compromise" are no longer the same thing. By endorsing Reid's spending cut-only bill (even with proposals Republicans deride as gimmicks), Obama has given up on the grand bargain and so-called balanced approach. If the nation rallies behind that and tells Congress as much, it will be lobbying in a vacuum. If it calls on Congress to "compromise" it will be theoretically pushing for Reid's bill.
(RELATED: Six Costs of Not Raising the Debt Ceiling)
Either way, Obama's call for outside help to isolate Boehner and pressure Republicans into buckling is classic divide-and-conquer politics. Boehner is struggling to hold his conference together behind a proposal that's a retreat from the cut, cap, and balance bill passed only last week.
Boehner's taking flak on his right. Now, Obama's depicting House Republicans as stubborn, small-minded, and willing to risk default, higher interest rates, and stock market volatility just to block higher taxes. Obama must position himself against House Republicans--even if he ultimately has to cut a deal with Boehner.