Bringing the curtain down on his first term with a combative press conference, President Barack Obama vowed on Monday to push "vigorously" for measures to curb deadly gun violence and pressed foes of new restrictions in the aftermath of the Newtown tragedy to "examine their own conscience." Obama also admitted he faced stiff opposition from gun-rights advocates in Congress and vowed executive action when possible.
The president, due to be sworn in on Sunday and make his inaugural address from the Capitol steps a day later, also warned Republicans against refusing to raise the nation's debt limit in order to wring spending cuts from the White House. "We are not a deadbeat nation," Obama said.
And he defended himself from criticisms that his nominees to serve in his second-term Cabinet have mostly been older white men, urging Americans not to "rush to judgment" based on his picks to lead the departments of State, Defense and Treasury and the CIA.
"Until you’ve seen what my overall team looks like, it’s premature to assume that somehow we’re going backwards," he said. "We’re not going backwards."
One month to the day after the elementary school slaughter in Connecticut, the president said he had received recommendations from Vice President Joe Biden's task force for curbing a national epidemic of gun violence. Those proposals are expected to face opposition from gun-rights groups like the NRA and its allies in Congress.
The Biden task force has "presented me now with a list of sensible, common-sense steps that can be taken to make sure that the kinds of violence we saw in Newtown doesn’t happen again," he told reporters. “I’ll present the details later in the week.”
He added, “My starting point is not to worry about the politics. My starting point is to focus on what makes sense, what works, what should we be doing to make sure that our children are safe and that we’re reducing the incidence of gun violence. I think we can do that in a sensible way that comports with the Second Amendment.”
But will Congress adopt proposals like renewing the assault weapons ban? “I don’t know,” Obama acknowledged. Lawmakers opposed to such steps must "examine their own conscience." In some cases, Congress won't act but he will, the president said.
“I’m confident that there are some steps that we can take that don’t require legislation and are within my authority as president," he said. "How we are gathering data, for example, on guns that fall into the hands of criminals and how we track that more effectively.”
Asked about the surge in gun and ammunition sales, Obama blamed "a fear that's been fanned" by opponents of gun control.
“We’ve seen—for some time now—that those who oppose any common-sense gun-control or gun-safety measures have a pretty effective way of ginning up fear on the part of gun owners that somehow the federal government’s about to take all your guns away," he said. "There’s probably an economic element to that—it obviously is good for business."
He added that "responsible gun owners—people who have a gun for protection, for hunting, for sportsmanship—they don’t have anything to worry about."
Obama also warned congressional Republicans that he will not trade spending cuts for their votes to raise the country’s debt ceiling.
Obama called Republican talk of not raising the limit—of, in effect, not paying the country’s bills—“irresponsible” and “absurd.” He said the GOP will “not collect a ransom in return for not crashing the economy."
“You don’t go out to dinner and then eat all you want and then leave without paying the check—and if you do you’re breaking the law," he said. “If Congress wants to have a debate about maybe we shouldn’t go out to dinner next time, maybe we should go to a more modest restaurant, that’s fine. That’s a debate that we should have. But you don’t say, 'In order for me to control my appetites, I’m going to not pay.'"
Even as Obama spoke, Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said in a statement that "the president and his allies need to get serious about spending, and the debt-limit debate is the perfect time for it."
And Republican House Speaker John Boehner warned that "the consequences of failing to increase the debt ceiling are real, but so, too, are the consequences of allowing our spending problem to go unresolved." He added: "The House will do its job and pass responsible legislation that controls spending, meets our nation’s obligations and keeps the government running."
At issue is the congressionally established debt limit, which the country is set to reach shortly. Without additional borrowing, the government will not be able to pay all of its bills, raising the prospect of a default on national debt payments or Washington being forced to stop issuing Social Security checks, pay to troops overseas and other legally required outlays, according to Obama. Either option would likely send shock waves through the fragile global economy.
Raising the debt limit was mostly a matter of routine in Washington under presidents of both parties for decades. The opposition would make a big show of wringing its hands over the nation’s finances (as a senator in 2006, Obama himself called it “a sign of leadership failure" and voted against raising it), and the majority would find a way to pass it.
Republicans broke sharply from that script in August 2011, when they demanded spending cuts equal to the amount that the limit would be raised. The ensuing standoff brought the nation to the brink of default and led to the first-ever downgrade of the country’s credit rating—but also to historic spending cuts, signed into law by Obama. Top Republican lawmakers have said publicly that this time they may be willing to partially shut down the government to secure more reductions.
“Our economy is growing and our businesses are creating new jobs, so we are poised for a good year if we make smart decisions and sound investments” and so long as Washington politics “don’t get in the way,” the president said.