Declaring, “I am not a dictator,” President Barack Obama urged Americans on Friday to help him pressure Republicans to help halt painful automatic government spending cuts. Obama acknowledged that the $85 billion "sequestration" would not be the end of the world, but warned that it would slow the tepid recovery and cost jobs.
"This is not going to be an apocalypse, I think, as people have said," the president underlined. "It's just dumb. And it's going to hurt. It's going to hurt individual people, and it's going to hurt the economy overall."
Obama spoke in the White House briefing room shortly after meeting with Republican House Speaker John Boehner, Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Democratic Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. The talks failed to prevent the cuts from going into effect by midnight, as scheduled.
"If Congress comes to its senses a week from now, a month from now, three months from now, then there's a lot of open running room there for us to grow our economy much more quickly," Obama said.
Apparently stung by criticisms that he has overhyped the possible damage from sequestration for political gain, Obama pointed to government workers—notably the janitors who mop the Capitol floors—who will get a pay cut, as well as small businesses that rely on dwindling government contracts, and warned of a "ripple effect" through the broader economy.
"I don’t anticipate a huge financial crisis, but people are going to be hurt," the president said. "We’re not making that up, that’s not a scare tactic."
Obama said some Republicans have privately signaled they would accept tax revenue increases as part of a compromise to replace sequestration, while some Democrats agree with his calls to overhaul Medicare.
“So there is a caucus of common sense up on Capitol Hill, it’s just it’s a silent group right now,” the president said. “In the coming days and in the coming weeks, I’m going to keep on reaching out to them.”
“I am prepared to do hard things and to push my Democratic friends to do hard things. But what I can’t do is ask middle-class families, ask seniors, ask students to bear the entire burden of deficit reduction," he said. "It's not fair, it's not right."
Obama said Republican leaders like Boehner face resistance to a grand bargain from rank-and-file GOP lawmakers who like to “paint horns on my head.”
Obama, pressed by a reporter on how much responsibility he bears for the standoff, tried to turn the tables: “What more do you think I should do?”
"I know that this has been some of the conventional wisdom that's been floating around Washington that somehow, even though most people agree that I'm being reasonable, that most people agree I'm presenting a fair deal, the fact that they [Republicans] don't take it means that I should somehow do a Jedi mind-meld with these folks and convince them to do what's right," he said. (His "Jedi mind-meld" drew swift derision on Twitter, chiefly from conservatives, for mixing the Star Wars and Star Trek franchises.)
Obama has accused Republicans of refusing to raise "a dime's worth" of new tax revenues by closing loopholes that chiefly benefit the wealthiest Americans and rich corporations in order to reduce the deficit. Republicans have countered that revenues raised that way should not go to pay for government spending but to lower tax rates, which they say will create jobs.
"I’d like to think that I’ve still got some persuasive power left " Obama said.
But "I am not a dictator, I’m the president," he emphasized, saying it was beyond his power to "force Congress to do the right thing" unless the American people help squeeze congressional Republicans.
Rachel Hartman contributed to this report.