President Obama spent 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 challenging Republicans to a public duel over raising taxes to solve the nation’s budget woes.
Speaking to lawmakers at House Democrats’ retreat in Lansdowne, Va., a combative Mr. Obama said he is willing to go head-to-head with 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 with a combination of spending cuts and tax increases. House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, and GOP lawmakers are still angry they agreed to tax increases without spending cuts during the “fiscal cliff” negotiations at the end of the year and argue the sequester should be replaced only by spending cuts.
Even though Mr. Obama and Republicans are still at loggerheads, Mr. Obama told House Democrats he is “prepared, eager and anxious” to produce a “big package” that would end this “governing by crisis” — a series of budget deals he said only last for a few months and are having a destabilizing impact on the economy.
While he said he would like to “do some additional reforms” on entitlement programs such as 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 Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, 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 is 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.
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 is 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.”
“You’d like to think that the shelf life wasn’t so short,” he said. “I go back to the Oval Office, and I start watching the cable news networks, and it’s like we didn’t pray.”