Mardell: Obama firm amid delicate talks

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Jay Carney. 11 Oct 2013Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Spokesman Jay Carney says Mr Obama will not pay "ransom"

President Obama's spokesman, Jay Carney, had a difficult job today. He had to talk about negotiations - which he described as "constructive" - while they were still going on.

He started off apparently rejecting the idea of lifting the debt ceiling for only six weeks.

He said that the US would simply be back here in a month and a half, just before Thanksgiving, leading up to Christmas.

The Republicans had to stop using default as a weapon, a cudgel, and "remove the gun from the table".

But he later seemed to suggest that if the six-week deal were "clean" - with no strings attached and not connected to budget negotiation - that might be different.

Later still he said the president would sign such a bill. It isn't clear if the rejection of using the debt ceiling as leverage is a wish, a principle, a condition, a bottom line or a negotiating stance.

That is frustrating for those of us trying to work out what is happening, but may be sensible for a spokesman when his boss is in the middle of delicate talks.

He wasn't the only one showing caution.

For the past few weeks each tiny move on the shutdown or the debt ceiling has been followed by a torrent of words. But after today's meeting between President Obama and Republican senators, almost nothing has been said by the politicians involved. And that is probably good news for those who want them to reach a deal.

Obama's tight corner

Perhaps we can blame the stair rods of rain tumbling from the sky but most senators didn't bother to stop at the microphones set up outside the White House.

Republican Senator Susan Collins did say that the president was interested in her plan to lift the debt ceiling and reopen the government but "did not endorse it".

Senator John Cornyn, the number-two Republican in the Senate, called the meeting "another predictable lecture" from Obama.

Several things seem clear to me. If the Republicans are saying very little in public, the president is saying almost nothing in private.

At least he is being careful not to commit himself to anything.

That's probably wise. It is the Republicans who are backing down, looking for a way out of the mess they have created. (There are several excellent long-form articles around on how this happened, such as this one from New Republic and this from Rolling Stone,)

So President Obama doesn't want to give the impression that he is anything but stern and firm. All the same, he has to give them enough to do a deal. But he has rather boxed himself into a tight corner.

He has repeatedly, forcefully, gone out of his way to say he will not pay ransom, a word Jay Carney repeated again today.

He is not going to leave briefcases full of concession in the boot of the Republicans' getaway car. But he has to look in his pocket for some spare change that they can show to their friends to demonstrate that the caper wasn't a complete bust.