President Obama appealed for “comity” Thursday morning at the National Prayer Breakfast, exhorting the country’s leaders to rise above partisan politics and come together to solve problems. By afternoon, he was rallying fellow Democrats, challenging Republicans to a public duel over raising taxes to solve the nation’s budget woes, and promising to lead the charge to restore Nancy Pelosi to her former post as speaker of the House.
Just hours after offering a message of unity at the annual prayer gathering, a combative Mr. Obama told a retreat of House Democrats meeting in Lansdowne, Va. that he was prepared to go head-to-head with congressional Republicans and argue for the need to impose more taxes on the wealthy and corporations instead of relying solely on cuts to government spending. Republicans, he said, want to cut back on benefits for the elderly and the poor.
“I want to tell you, if that’s an argument they want to have, that’s an argument I’m more than willing to engage in the court of public opinion,” he said. “I promise you we can win that debate because we’re on the right side of the argument.”
With deep, across-the-board cuts set to hit the government March 1, Mr. Obama earlier this week called to replace the so-called “sequester” of defense and non-defense cuts with a smaller package of spending cuts and tax hikes. House GOP Speaker John Boehner, and other Republicans are still angry that the year-end “fiscal cliff” included a tax increase but not spending cuts, and argue that any substitute for the sequester should consist of spending cuts alone.
Attacking “government by crisis”
Even though Mr. Obama and Republicans remain at loggerheads, Mr. Obama told House Democrats he is “prepared, eager and anxious” to produce a “big package” that would end what he called “governing by crisis” — a series of short-term budget deals that only last for a few months and, Mr. Obama said, are having a destabilizing impact on the economy.
While the president said he would like to “do some additional reforms” on entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security and “cut out programs that we don’t need,” he cautioned that he wouldn’t agree to do so “on the backs” of senior citizens and middle-class Americans.
If the House Democrats stick with him through some tough fights ahead on the budget, guns and immigration, Mr. Obama also predicted Mrs. Pelosi, the California Democrat who now is the House minority leader, would be speaker again “real soon.”
Just hours earlier, a more solemn Mr. Obama speaking at the annual prayer breakfast at the Washington Hilton, extolled the power of prayer to transcend politics and said it was time to get beyond fractious fighting and focus on what unites the country, not what tears it apart.
Avoiding hot topics such as gay rights or immigration, Mr. Obama recalled placing his hand on Abraham Lincoln’s Bible during his second inauguration just two weeks ago and contemplating the nation’s ability to recover from the Civil War.
“Today the divisions in this country are thankfully not as deep and destructive as when Lincoln led — but they are real,” he said.
He then praised Lincoln’s ability to “see God in those who vehemently opposed him,” adding the country could do well to emulate his approach.”In a democracy as big and as diverse as ours, we will encounter every opinion, And our task as citizens, whether we are leaders in government or business or spreading the word, is to spend our days with open hearts and open minds, to seek out the truth that exists in an opposing view, to find the common ground that allows for us as a national and as a people to take real and meaningful action.”
Even as the president was delivering his plea for less partisan rancor, a gay activist group was criticizing him for attending the prayer breakfast because it is hosted by The Fellowship, a conservative Christian organization that the group said is “secretive” and “is known for its global connections to homophobic violence and for supporting legislation around the world that would kill or imprison lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.”
Mr. Obama said he thoroughly enjoys attending the breakfasts, a presidential tradition started by President Eisenhower in 1953. But he said he was dismayed by how quickly the good will from the event seems to fade.
“I have to say, this is now our fifth prayer breakfast, and it is always just a wonderful event,” he said. “But I do worry sometimes that as soon as we leave the prayer breakfast, everything that we’ve been talking about the whole time at the prayer breakfast seems to be forgotten — on the same day of the prayer breakfast.”