He threatened to veto any plan that cuts Medicare unless it also raises taxes on the wealthy.
WASHINGTON - With a scrappy unveiling of his formula to rein in the nation's mounting debt, President Obama confirmed Monday that he has entered a new, more combative phase of his presidency, one likely to last until next year's election as he battles for a second term.
Faced with falling poll numbers for his leadership and an anxious party base, Obama did not just propose but insisted that any long-term debt-reduction plan must not shave future Medicare benefits without also raising taxes on the wealthiest taxpayers and corporations.
He uncharacteristically backed up that stand with a veto threat, setting up a politically charged choice for anti-tax Republicans -- protect the most affluent or compromise to attack deficits. Confident in the answers most voters would offer, Obama plans to hammer on that choice through 2012, reflecting the fact that the White House has all but given up hopes of a "grand bargain" with Republicans to restore fiscal balance for years to come.
"I will not support -- I will not support -- any plan that puts all the burden for closing our deficit on ordinary Americans. And I will veto any bill that changes benefits for those who rely on Medicare but does not raise serious revenues by asking the wealthiest Americans or biggest corporations to pay their fair share," Obama said in the Rose Garden. "We are not going to have a one-sided deal that hurts the folks who are most vulnerable."
And, responding to criticisms of the plan by Republicans, he added: "This is not class warfare. ... It's math."
Obama also seems to have given up on his strategy of nearly a year, beginning when Republicans won control of the House last November, of being the eager-to-compromise "reasonable adult" -- in the White House's phrasing -- in his relations with them. He had sought to build a personal relationship with House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, a man the White House saw as a possible partner across the aisle, in the hopes of making bipartisan progress and simultaneously winning points with independent voters who disdain partisanship. Even if the efforts produced few agreements with Republicans, the White House figured, independents would give Obama credit for trying.
A third chapter
Instead, the president was unable to close his deal with Boehner and has only lost independents' support and left Democrats disillusioned, raising doubts about his re-election prospects.
So after his initial two years of dealing with an economic and financial crisis while pursuing an activist social agenda with Democrats in control of the House and Senate, and then a frustrating third year sharing power with Republicans, Obama now begins writing a third chapter for his term's final 15 months that is not the one he had in mind.
"It is fair to say we've entered a new phase," said Dan Pfeiffer, Obama's communications director.
In this new phase, Obama must solidify support among Democrats by standing pat for progressive party principles, while trusting that a show of strong leadership for the policies he believes in will appeal to independents. Polls consistently suggest that perhaps the only thing that unites independents as much as their desire for compromise is their inclination toward leaders who signal strength by fighting for their beliefs.
"The president laid down a marker today that is true to his beliefs," said Jacob Lew, director of Obama's Office of Management and Budget. Obama's plan to reduce annual deficits over a decade does call for subtracting $320 billion from Medicare and Medicaid, building on savings required in his health care law.
But those proposals are far from the overhaul and reductions that Republicans are demanding in the two popular entitlement programs.
Social Security off the table
And Obama removed Social Security from the table, as well as a proposal to slowly raise the eligibility age for Medicare to 67 from 65. Administration officials say Obama is not ruling out either proposal if Republicans were to show significant give on taxes.
But the White House does not expect Republicans to do so.
In response to the plan, Boehner said in a statement that Obama "has not made a serious contribution" to the work of a bipartisan joint congressional committee, which has two months to reach agreement on cutting deficits by at least $1.5 trillion in 10 years.