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Will Obama's barbs help or hurt debt talks?

By David Gergen, CNN Senior Political Analyst
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • David Gergen: At news conference today, Obama slammed GOP on debt debate
  • He says Obama wisely tied issue to jobs, taking debate into realm voters care about
  • He says approach may irk GOP, but as with Afghanistan, plays well outside Beltway
  • Gergen: Obama's stance won't bring agreement closer, will likely end up with short-term fix

Editor's note:David Gergen is a senior political analyst for CNN and has been an adviser to four presidents. He is professor of public service and director of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. Follow him on Twitter.

(CNN) -- "When they won't see the light," goes the old saying, "make 'em feel the heat." That was the strategy President Obama employed today in his press conference as he skewered Republicans over deficit negotiations. But where will it lead?

The president likely scored political points with two arguments. First, he skillfully made the case that in refusing to end tax breaks for oil companies, millionaires, and CEOs on corporate jets, Republicans are taking money away from hard-pressed Americans who need help. Who would want to do that?

After the conference went on so long that he seemed bored, Obama came alive with a question from CNN's Jessica Yellin about the debt ceiling. Speaking with exasperation, Obama argued that the debt ceiling is not some abstraction but "a jobs issue." Most analysts have talked about the debt ceiling in financial terms; Obama wisely tied it to jobs.

Repeatedly during the 70 minutes, Obama took snide jabs and belittled Republicans. He surely infuriated many of them. They won't appreciate being told they are not as responsible as his young daughters doing their homework. They especially won't like him saying they have been going home too much, and should stay in town to work on the deficits.

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Who is he to take that poke, they will ask? Only a few days ago, a conservative columnist argued that Obama himself had gone to nine fund-raisers in the previous two weeks while spending only an hour and a half with his Treasury secretary on the economy.

Such personal slights will only prompt Republicans in Congress to dig in their heels. They will insist -- with justification -- that mammoth deficits are due in large measure to a government that spends nearly a quarter of the GDP, the highest levels since World War II. Their voters have also told them they don't want any more tax increases. Republicans on the Hill will be more alienated from the White House after today's press conference.

But as we have seen in the past, Obama can turn off the inside-the-Beltway crowd even as he builds public support for his position. His Afghanistan speech last week was a flop in Washington, as critics attacked his pull-out strategy from every angle. (I was among them.) Yet a Gallup poll today showed 72% of Americans support his withdrawal plan.

And so it is likely to be with today's press conference: It will prompt hard feelings among conservative leaders and won't really please liberals who worry that he isn't doing enough to goose up the economy and may give away the store on deficit reductions.

Out in the countryside, however, his comments are likely to help him politically, as a majority all along has wanted to raise taxes on oil companies and millionaires. He has also begun to build a case that if talks blow up, Republicans are to blame.

But where does this all leave prospects for a deficit plan before the debt ceiling crunch in early August? From this corner, this press conference made it even more likely that the White House and Congress will be unable to forge a mega-agreement before August 2.

Neither side really wants to let the government go into default. So, the prospect of a short-term fix grows, and this is something that won't please anybody, will rattle the financial markets, and will once again send a message that the circus goes on.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Gergen.

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