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Meet the Press Panel: Obama 'Above the Fray' in Budget Fight

During the panel discussion on Sunday's Meet the Press on NBC, host David Gregory gushed over President Obama's Friday night address to the nation on the budget deal: "The message was clear. Here he was to save the day, that it was President Obama - and he went to the Lincoln Memorial on Saturday - that he was able to rise above the fray. That's the image they want Americans to see."

The rest of the political panel agreed with Gregory's assessment. Special Olympics CEO Tim Shriver argued: "I think the President appears to be a mediator, and I think he, he rightfully gets some credit for averting the show - shutdown." CNBC Mad Money host Jim Cramer declared: "I think the President came out very much above this week, above the fray." New York Times White House correspondent Helene Cooper proclaimed: "[Obama] was trying very much to appear above the - above the fray....definitely did the political calculus that he has to appear above it all, presidential."

At the top of the broadcast, Gregory portrayed Democrats as level-headed and responsible while dismissing Republicans as partisan attackers. Gregory described how "a government shutdown was averted at the 11th hour," followed by a sound bite of President Obama seeming to take credit for the deal. Then the Meet the Press host lamented: "Still, an embarrassment for all sides in Washington. Partisan attacks." That comment was followed by a clip of Republican House Speaker John Boehner pointing out Obama's lack of leadership on the budget.

White House correspondent Chuck Todd started the panel discussion by describing the "silly" social issues that became part of the debate: "And they were arguing over - at one point it was .83 percent of the federal budget, so less than 1 percent. And then at the end, that $300 million provision about Planned Parenthood, I mean, you're arguing over a tenth of a percent inside the federal budget. So it did seem silly at the end, especially when it wasn't money separating them, it was the culture wars of the last 35 years separating them, almost bringing us to, to this brink. So no, it wasn't - it was a low moment for much of the week."

Later, Gregory went after the Tea Party for being too ideological: "Speaker Boehner's got a challenge. He has got a Tea Party caucus that is made up of folks who don't believe their job to come here is to legislate, it is not to compromise, it is to stick to some pure ideals that they got elected for. That is not the point of Congress, is it?"

In response, Shriver defended conservative members of Congress standing on principle, but then added: "The problem, I think, most Americans find is that they're not clear on what those people [Tea Partiers] are willing to build the country to do....We don't want to be just the country that talks endlessly about being broke and needing to destroy the fabric, the social fabric."

Looking to the impact of the budget fight on the 2012 election, Gregory asked Todd how Democrats were going to handle the issue. Todd enthusiastically predicted: "...the Democrats, the White House, is licking their chops about it. They're basically saying this is great. They can't believe Pawlenty and Romney and all the guys running for president have signed onto it [Rep. Paul Ryan's 2012 budget proposal]. They say, whoever one of them is the nominee, they own it and they say good luck carrying....the state of Florida with that."

Near the end of the discussion, Gregory turned to Shriver and wondered about the Democratic political strategy: "...you have the President, in effect, making an argument, saying, 'Look, I'm for cutting the budget. I'm for dealing with the deficit. But I'm not as extreme as those other guys. I'll be much more of a - of a centrist guy than those Republicans.' That's the argument."

Shriver replied: "I think he has a claim there....I think the President has a strong case to make if the economy's recovering. And if he can say that he is being fair, I think the, I think - my own view is that what Americans want is fairness. They want a fair chance....I don't think today they believe that everybody has a chance. I think they think the playing field is unfair. I think people at the bottom don't feel the ladder is there for them."

Here is a transcript of portions of the April 10 panel discussion:

10:30AM ET TEASE:

DAVID GREGORY: This Sunday, showdown over spending, but a government shutdown was averted at the 11th hour.

BARACK OBAMA: This agreement between Democrats and Republicans on behalf of all Americans is on a budget that invests in our future while making the largest annual spending cut in our history.

GREGORY: Still, an embarrassment for all sides in Washington. Partisan attacks-

JOHN BOEHNER [REP. R-OH]: The President isn't leading. He didn't lead on last year's budget, and he clearly is not leading on this year's budget.

GREGORY: While our soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq had to worry about whether they'd get paid if the government closed.

JOHN KERRY [REP. D-MA]: This is a dangerous moment for our economy and for our country. And, frankly, it's an embarrassing moment for the Congress of the United States.

GREGORY: So what does the final deal look like, and who came out ahead politically?

(...)

11:00AM ET SEGMENT:

GREGORY: We're back, joined now by our roundtable: White House correspondent for The New York Times, Helene Cooper; NBC's chief White House correspondent and political director, Chuck Todd; host of CNBC's Mad Money, the mild-mannered Jim Cramer; and chairman and CEO of the Special Olympics and contributor to The Washington Post, Tim Shriver. Welcome to all of you.

Well, here was the headline Saturday morning in The Washington Post, Chuck Todd, 'Bitter Fight Makes Both Sides - and Washington Itself - Look Bad.' You cannot come away from this week and not think this was a low moment for our policymakers and our politicians.

CHUCK TODD: And, and they were arguing over - at one point it was .83 percent of the federal budget, so less than 1 percent. And then at the end, that $300 million provision about Planned Parenthood, I mean, you're arguing over a tenth of a percent inside the federal budget.

GREGORY: Mm-hmm.

TODD: So it did seem silly at the end, especially when it wasn't money separating them, it was the culture wars of the last 35 years separating them, almost bringing us to, to this brink. So no, it wasn't - it was a low moment for much of the week. What's been amazing is that in the last 48 hours how both sides - it's one of those rare occasions - both sides want to declare some victory here in a way that we hadn't seen that before.

GREGORY: Yeah.

TODD: And they're each praising each other. Look at David Plouffe talking about there's real trust here. That's not true. There is real distrust after this process.

GREGORY: The well has been poisoned. I mean, you, you chronicled it this morning in the Times, Helene. There were some tough fights in the course of this. Nobody can be happy or really claim victory when it went so close to a shutdown.

HELENE COOPER: That's absolutely true. And even though, you know, you see both of them - you see President Obama and Congressman Boehner sitting there and saying - standing up and declaring victory, the reality is this was very, very close. And even up until 10:30 at night we had aides at the White House - they'd sequestered a bunch of reporters, some photographers and cameramen, from 4:00 in the afternoon right in the East Room next to the Blue Room.

GREGORY: Right.

COOPER: Where Obama was going to make his speech, and they wanted the - him to stand in front of the window with the Washington Monument in the back to declare that it would be open. But for six hours these people - these press people sat there, not allowed to tell anybody where they were or anything like that.

GREGORY: Right.

COOPER: While President Obama's aides fluttered about, not knowing whether they had a deal or not.

GREGORY: Well-

COOPER: When it gets that close to the wire, that's, that's pretty scary.

GREGORY: Well, you talk about that moment, Tim Shriver. So this was the moment. The President finally does speak after all those hours, and, and he, he makes a presentation about a couple of things. One, that cutting spending is something that has to happen. But when it comes to the showdown, he made another point.

BARACK OBAMA: Behind me through the window you can see the Washington Monument, visited each year by hundreds of thousands from around the world. Tomorrow, I'm pleased to announce that the Washington Monument, as well as the entire federal government, will be open for business.

GREGORY: The message was clear. Here he was to save the day, that it was President Obama - and he went to the Lincoln Memorial on Saturday - that he was able to rise above the fray. That's the image they want Americans to see.

TIM SHRIVER: Well, I think the President appears to be a mediator, and I think he, he rightfully gets some credit for averting the show - shutdown.

(...)

GREGORY: For the table here there's a bigger issue. I'll start with you, Tim. What we see in this fight, what is coming on the debt ceiling fight, and then, of course, the budget for next year, the conservatives have a challenge. Speaker Boehner's got a challenge. He has got a Tea Party caucus that is made up of folks who don't believe their job to come here is to legislate, it is not to compromise, it is to stick to some pure ideals that they got elected for. That is not the point of Congress, is it?

SHRIVER: Well, I think it's not the point, but I think people respect the idea that these people have strong beliefs. I think there's a sense in the country that standing up for what you believe in, that's always been a part of the American identity. Standing up for what you believe in and being willing to lose. I wonder what the Democrats would say they're willing to lose for in this coming election. I think these Tea Party folks are making a very strong point: 'We're willing to lose over this. We're willing to lose over this fight.'

The problem, I think, most Americans find is that they're not clear on what those people are willing to build the country to do. They're - they understand cutting. They understand fiscal responsibility. I think everybody does. But people - Americans are hungry for greatness, too, you know.

Americans see what's going on in the Middle East, and they say, 'We're - we should be a role model for these countries. We should be the sort of beacon for what people believe democracy should be. We don't want to be just the country that talks endlessly about being broke and needing to destroy the fabric, the social fabric. We want to be the country that talks about what we want to do for the next generation of children, not just to relieve them of debt, but to inspire them to believe that this is a great country again.'

GREGORY: And yet, even some of those ideals, if, if - depending upon your point of view, if you think somebody like a Chairman [Paul] Ryan embodies that by what he's talking about on the budget, is tempered by a political reality.

Charlie Cook writes about it in his column in the National Journal on Saturday. I'll put a portion of it up on the screen. 'It's a little short of suicidal to drop a Medicare reform package - even a voucher plan that would be optional for those currently older than 55 - into tough budget negotiations stymied over Republican demands for deep spending cuts. Democrats have some experience with older voters going ballistic, even with changes that wouldn't affect them. For many seniors, doing anything to Medicare that can't be portrayed as an increase is essentially a cut, and they will fight it to their last breath. From a political standpoint, Medicare reform is a very dangerous territory to go in. House Republicans are not just pushing the envelope, they are soaking it with lighter fluid and waving a match at it.'

JIM CRAMER: Yeah. Look. I think the President came out very much above this week, above the fray.

GREGORY: Mm-hmm.

CRAMER: I think he can do it again. I think he knows - and I think Ben Bernanke is telling him, 'Listen' - the Fed Chairman - 'you'd better get this stuff together because rates are going to start going up rather dramatically once we're done buying bonds,' which is going to be in July, August. The President knows that this has to be solved within the next 12 months or it is going to hurt his re-election because interest rates are going to go up dramatically precisely because of Medicare. Precisely.

GREGORY: What, what about this entitlement fight that they're starting on the Republican side?

COOPER: I - I think President Obama's making a calculus right now that he - traditionally, presidents vs. Congress, whenever they go head to head, the president usually looks better. And throughout the past week, President Obama, I mean, on Friday morning he called his aides into the Oval Office and said - this is the same time that Harry Reid was out there saying, 'They're throwing women under the bus' - and he said, 'Be quiet. Don't say that much.'

When he went out during the week, whenever he came out, you know, after these budget sessions with Boehner and Reid, he - you know, he refrained from the out-and-out political attacks, and he, he pulled back. He was trying very much to appear above the - above the fray. It's going to be different when you go after - when you, when you start the entitlement fights. But I think for now, you know, Obama definitely did the political calculus that he has to appear above it all, presidential.

GREGORY: Alright. We'll take a break here. I want to come back with Chuck on that, on the politics of this budget fight. Plus, our political unit's battleground map for 2012. Right - more with our panel when we come back after this.

[COMMERCIAL BREAK]

GREGORY: We're back with our roundtable. Let's talk 2012 politics. Our political director, Chuck Todd, first of all, the budget fight. Congressman Ryan's plan, you heard David Plouffe today, 'not a shared sacrifice document,' and on and on. How are they going to, how are they going to deal with it?

TODD: Oh, they - look, the Democrats, the White House, is licking their chops about it. They're basically saying this is great. They can't believe Pawlenty and Romney and all the guys running for president have signed onto it. They say, whoever one of them is the nominee, they own it and they say good luck carrying-

GREGORY: Mitt Romney said some good things about it.

TODD: Good luck carrying the state of Florida with that. But one thing that I think we, we wanted to quickly bring up is what we saw Boehner have to do is a preview. If you're running for president, that's a preview of this push and pull you're going to have to do, which is you're going to have to appease the Tea Party, but be careful becoming them.

And that's going to be this challenge, right? Tim Pawlenty and Mitt Romney want to appease them, have them in the tent. But if you alienate them too much, they'll throw you overboard, which was the fear Boehner had the whole time. So it's an interesting preview of the Republican primary process and how that's going to work going forward.

(...)

GREGORY: And, Tim, part of the issue here is you have the President, in effect, making an argument, saying, 'Look, I'm for cutting the budget. I'm for dealing with the deficit. But I'm not as extreme as those other guys. I'll be much more of a - of a centrist guy than those Republicans.' That's the argument.

SHRIVER: Well, I think - and I think he has a claim there. I think the question, really, you know, that I think we have to answer in 2012 is, what were we so angry about in 2010? What really is the, is the root of that anger? I think most people would answer that Americans are angry about the lack of jobs, lack of a strong middle class, lack of growing incomes, lack of purpose, lack of fulfillment, lack of vision.

I think the President has a strong case to make if the economy's recovering. And if he can say that he is being fair, I think the, I think - my own view is that what Americans want is fairness. They want a fair chance. They don't mind rich people getting rich. They just want to make sure everybody has a chance to be that rich guy.

I don't think today they believe that everybody has a chance. I think they think the playing field is unfair. I think people at the bottom don't feel the ladder is there for them. I think if the President can make the case, or if the Republicans can make the case, that the shared and fairness ingredient is being mit, is being hit, I think either of the parties has a chance to say to the Americans who are angry, 'Channel this anger in a direction that's good for the country and good for the planet.'

- Kyle Drennen is a news analyst at the Media Research Center. You can follow him on Twitter here.