White House advisers on Monday pushed back hard against a New York Times report that the administration is ready to launch a full-frontal assault on the Tea Party movement as the November elections approach. No such plans are being made, insisted senior advisers. And, sure enough, the Times quickly modified its story into something a bit duller.
In a town hall meeting broadcast live by CNBC on Monday, however, President Obama seemed to be reading off the initial script. Pressed by an audience member to weigh in on what exactly drives the Tea Party, Obama, in no uncertain terms, accused the movement's members of refusing to talk in specifics.
If there is anger over the economic or political landscape, he added, it is being misdirected in his direction.
"The problem that I've seen in the debate that's been taking place and in some of these Tea Party events is, I think they're misidentifying sort of who the culprits are here," said Obama. "As I said before, we had to take some emergency steps last year. But the majority of economists will tell you that the emergency steps we take are not the problem long-term. The problems long-term are the problems that I talked about earlier. We had two tax cuts that weren't paid for, two wars that weren't paid for. We've got a population that's getting older. We're all demanding services, but our taxes have actually substantially gone down."
"So the challenge, I think, for the Tea Party movement is to identify, specifically, what would you do?" he added. "It's not enough just to say get control of spending. I think it's important for you to say, I'm willing to cut veterans' benefits or I'm willing to cut Medicare or Social Security benefits or I'm willing to see these taxes go up. What you can't do, which is what I've been hearing a lot from the other side, is we're going to control government spending, we're going to propose $4 trillion of additional tax cuts, and that magically somehow things are going to work. Now, some of these are very difficult choices."
Obama does seem to operate at his best when facing inherently adversarial questions (recall the positive coverage he received for going to a Republican conference in Baltimore during the height of the health care debate). And while several questioners at the CNBC event were sympathetic to the president, the answers that seemed to resonate best came when the pro-business or anti-government questioners were pressing him.
His direct questioning of the Tea Party's motives came just moments before he acknowledged that being "healthfully skeptical about government" is in "our DNA."