President Barack Obama laid out an astoundingly ambitious second-term agenda in an interview published Wednesday, vowing to forge a "grand bargain" with Republicans to reduce the national debt and achieve comprehensive immigration reform—all in 2013.
"It will probably be messy. It won't be pleasant," Obama told the Des Moines Register's publisher and its editor by telephone. The daily made the exchange public after the White House dropped its insistence that it be off-the-record.
Messy? Unpleasant? Well, yes. Even if Obama wins re-election—hardly a done deal—few if any analysts expect the Democrats to retake the House of Representatives. And while the Democrats are forecast to hold on to the Senate, betting that the president's party will secure a filibuster-proof 60-seat majority is a fool's game—at least according to the latest polls. That makes these promises reliant on Obama using the bully pulpit of the White House more effectively than he has since taking office in January 2009.
"The good news is that there's going to be a forcing mechanism to deal with what is the central ideological argument in Washington right now, and that is: How much government do we have and how do we pay for it?" Obama said in the interview. He was referring to the so-called "fiscal cliff" at the end of 2012—the looming expiration of the Bush-era tax cuts, the painful automatic domestic and military spending cuts known as the "sequester," and the end of a temporary payroll tax reduction and some unemployment benefits.
The president has pushed for letting the Bush-era tax cuts, which he renewed entirely in late 2010 in the face of Republican pressure, expire for individuals making $200,000 or more or families pulling in $250,000 and above. Obama signaled that his long-standing offer for deficit and debt reduction will still be on the table, a move that could irk Democrats.
"I am absolutely confident that we can get what is the equivalent of the grand bargain that essentially I've been offering to the Republicans for a very long time, which is $2.50 worth of cuts for every dollar in spending, and work to reduce the costs of our health care programs," Obama said. (The White House quickly clarified that he meant $2.50 of spending cuts for every dollar in new tax revenue.)
"We can easily meet—'easily' is the wrong word—we can credibly meet the target that the Bowles-Simpson Commission established of $4 trillion in deficit reduction, and even more in the out-years, and we can stabilize our deficit-to-GDP ratio in a way that is really going to be a good foundation for long-term growth," Obama said. "Now, once we get that done, that takes a huge piece of business off the table."
"The second thing I'm confident we'll get done next year is immigration reform," said Obama, who has drawn fire from the Hispanic community for not keeping his 2008 campaign pledge to do just that. Republicans, meanwhile, have accused him of softening immigration enforcement for political gain.
"Since this is off the record, I will just be very blunt. Should I win a second term, a big reason I will win a second term is because the Republican nominee and the Republican Party have so alienated the fastest-growing demographic group in the country, the Latino community," he said. "And this is a relatively new phenomenon. George Bush and Karl Rove were smart enough to understand the changing nature of America. And so I am fairly confident that they're going to have a deep interest in getting that done. And I want to get it done because it's the right thing to do and I've cared about this ever since I ran back in 2008."
Republican opposition doomed immigration reform the last time around, and the political payoff is not always clear—but senior Obama adviser David Plouffe told reporters Wednesday that the Republican Party could not afford to drive off Latino voters if the party hopes to survive.
"Republicans basically walked away from their belief that we need immigration reform. My suspicion is if you lose a presidential election to Latino voters by 40 points in a fastly [sic] growing country, the responsible thing to do if you're in that party that's losing by 40 points is to look in the mirror," Plouffe said.
Plouffe also said he thought he saw "more and more Republican senators ... saying they're more open to revenue" (meaning: tax increases).
"And most Democrats have shown themselves open to do tough things on spending," Plouffe added. "It's going to require both parties coming together."
Chris Moody contributed reporting.