By Steve Holland and Mark Felsenthal
President Barack Obama scolded congressional Republicans on Thursday, hours after a fiscal crisis was narrowly averted and called on his opponents to help repair the economic damage caused by a 16-day U.S. government shutdown and a close brush with a debt default.
Obama stressed that he is willing to work with lawmakers wherever they can agree, but the tone he struck amounted to a rebuke of Republicans, whom Americans largely blame for pushing the United States to the brink of an economic calamity.
“The American people are completely fed up with Washington,” said Obama in a White House speech attended by many of the aides who worked day and night through the various stages of the latest fiscal stalemate.
Hours after he signed into law a bill hastily cobbled together to end the crisis, Obama said events over the past two weeks had inflicted “completely unnecessary” damage on the U.S. economy.
An increase in borrowing costs caused by the near-debt default was harmful and consumers cut back on spending with hundreds of thousands of government workers suddenly idled, he said.
“There was no economic rationale for all of this,” he said.
Though bruised by the battle, Obama emerged as the clear winner. He immediately sought to use the political capital gained to advance a domestic policy agenda centered around a fresh round of budget talks and an effort to win approval of two stalled items, immigration reform and a farm bill.
He did not mention an urgent challenge facing him now: Repairing the flaws in his signature healthcare law that have prevented many Americans from even signing up for it.
Obama issued an aggressive challenge to Congress, particularly the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, to stop focusing on who wins and loses political battles and get to work with him on issues critical to improving the economy.
“All of us need to stop focusing on the lobbyists and the bloggers and the talking heads on radio and the professional activists who profit from conflict and focus on what the majority of Americans sent us here to do,” he said.
Obama’s refusal to negotiate over the U.S. debt ceiling was credited by his aides as having forced Republicans to accept most of his terms for an agreement.
Even so, the president’s strategy carried the risk of making him appear reluctant to engage his political opponents.
Leon Panetta, who served as Obama’s defense secretary, offered what seemed to be indirect criticism of Obama this week at a reporters’ breakfast hosted by the Wall Street Journal.
“You have to engage in the process. This is a town where it’s not enough to feel you have the right answers. You’ve got to roll up your sleeves and you’ve got to really engage in the process ... that’s what governing is all about,” the Washington Post quoted Panetta as saying.
The agenda Obama laid out for the rest of the year appeared to presage more partisan fighting. He called for House action on two major items that cleared the Democratic-controlled Senate earlier this year but collapsed in the House: an overhaul of the U.S. immigration system and passage of a $500 billion farm bill.
Obama also renewed his plea for a “balanced approach” to the U.S. budget – language that means he wants to see some sources of new revenue in the budget, such as closing corporate tax loopholes, instead of simply cutting government spending.
House Republicans have ruled out tax increases.
“I understand we will not suddenly agree on everything now that the cloud of crisis has passed. Democrats and Republicans are far apart on a lot of issues,” Obama said. “And sometimes we’ll be just too far apart to forge an agreement. But that should not hold back our efforts in areas where we do agree.”