With America's global credit standing suddenly in question, President Obama insisted Tuesday that Washington has the political will to slash the massive U.S. debt despite fierce, fundamental differences with Republicans about how to do it.
Obama spoke hopefully of compromise with GOP lawmakers but still used a campaignlike town hall-style event to accuse the Republicans of offering proposals that would provide a bleak future for the poor, the young and the elderly.
The president seemed intent on assuring financial markets and the watching world that U.S. leaders will get their act together to address a suffocating debt -- while at the same time trying to convince voters that only his plan would share the pain fairly.
Republicans didn't sound optimistic about compromise.
House Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, announced Tuesday that he had picked House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., to work with a White House commission on cutting spending. But in doing so, Boehner said, "the American people understand we can't keep spending money we don't have. The only ones who don't are the Democrats running Washington."
More upbeat, Obama said: "Here's the good news: I believe that Democrats and Republicans can come together to get this done." Speaking at Northern Virginia Community College outside Washington, he said, "There will be those who say that we're too divided, that partisanship is too stark. But I'm optimistic."
Obama never mentioned the new context for his comments: a warning that the federal government must rein in its debt or risk losing its sterling credit rating, which could in turn erode the economic recovery. Monday, Standard and Poor's, a key credit-rating agency, lowered its outlook for the government's fiscal health to "negative" amid sliding confidence in Washington's ability to deal with its debt.
The president said that over the last five months -- in other words, since Republicans altered the dynamic in Washington by winning control of the House in midterm elections -- the two parties have come together to strike some unexpected deals.
However, both of the major agreements happened only under duress: first to prevent a middle-class tax hike, then to avoid a partial shutdown of the government.
Obama accused Republicans of wanting to cut taxes for the rich at the expense of early education for children or health care for senior citizens, poor children and the disabled.
"That's not who we are as a country," he said. "We're better than that."
Obama's town hall-style event was the first of three that he is scheduled to do this week, all on the theme of the country's poor fiscal health and his plan to change it. He leaves today for California, where he will hold a forum in Palo Alto, and then one in Reno, Nev.