WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama, who said just days ago that he had no interest in playing a “blame game,” spent much of a news conference on Friday pointing fingers at Republicans after last-ditch talks with congressional leaders failed to avert automatic spending cuts from kicking in later in the day.
Emerging from a nearly hour-long meeting and taking the podium in the White House briefing room, Obama displayed a combative style that has become his regular approach toward opponents since his decisive re-election victory in November.
Asked why he didn’t just refuse to let congressional leaders leave the room until they had a deal, Obama told reporters: “I am not a dictator. I’m the president. So, ultimately, if (Senate Republican leader) Mitch McConnell or (Republican House of Representatives Speaker) John Boehner say, ‘We need to go to catch a plane,’ I can’t have Secret Service block the doorway, right?”
Pressed on whether he was showing enough leadership - something Republicans say he has been lacking in the fiscal showdown - Obama mixed up his sci-fi references but made his point, nonetheless.
“I’m presenting a fair deal. The fact that they don’t take it means that I should somehow do a ‘Jedi mind-meld’ with these folks and convince them to do what’s right,” he said, while offering no new ideas for resolving the bitter dispute.
Obama combined a reference to the “mind trick” sometimes used by Jedi on weak-minded adversaries in the “Star Wars” films with the “Vulcan mind meld” technique used by the “Star Trek” character Spock and others from his fictional planet Vulcan.
The president acknowledged that “this is not going to be an apocalypse” but he called the cuts “just dumb.”
Obama’s self-confidence - and his willingness to let things go over the edge, at least temporarily, in the latest fiscal battle - demonstrated what his aides have been saying for weeks.
He believes he’s winning the public relations war and that Americans will put the lion’s share of the blame on the Republicans for any economic pain and social hardship caused by failing to head off $85 billion in spending cuts due to start taking effect.
Republicans, for their part, insist Obama is exaggerating the potential impact of the cuts, but are seeking to avoid blame. McConnell, after the talks, called it “the president’s across-the-board cuts” even though both sides agreed in 2011 to have these “sequestration” spending cuts go into effect if Obama and lawmakers failed to fashion another deficit-reduction plan.
But with lawmakers either heading out of town or already gone, Obama used the presidential soapbox on Friday to hammer home his points. He suggested that Republicans - who accuse him of continuing to campaign despite the election being long over - were driven, at least in part by entrenched hostility toward him still simmering after their election losses.
“I recognize that it’s very hard for Republican leaders to be perceived as making concessions to me,” Obama said. “Sometimes, I reflect, ‘Is there something else I could do to make these guys - I’m not talking about the leaders now, but maybe some of the House Republican caucus members - not paint horns on my head?’”
Obama wants Republicans to agree to eliminate tax loopholes enjoyed largely by the wealthy in order to help reduce the U.S. budget deficit. Republicans have ruled out raising taxes and want spending cuts instead.
Obama also took a shot at New York’s billionaire mayor, Michael Bloomberg, who endorsed the president in the 2012 election. Bloomberg, during a visit to the White House on Wednesday, suggested to reporters that the administration was hyping the warnings of dire consequences from sequestration.
Responding to that, Obama said the Defense Department was trying to figure out how to continue funding schools for the children of military families. He also said Border Patrol agents “out there in the hot sun” were facing a 10 percent pay cut.
“I don’t think they feel like this is an exaggerated impact. So I guess it depends on where you sit,” he said.
Obama’s sci-fi reference caused a stir on the Internet.
His mashing-together of the Vulcan “mind meld” and the Jedi “mind trick” went viral, drawing an avalanche of commentary on Twitter from “Trekkies” and “Star Wars” fans eager to point out the mistake.
The White House, known for its use of social media, wasted little time joining in the fun. “We must bring balance to the Force,” it tweeted along with a photo of a gesturing Obama. “To deny the facts would be illogical.” “The Force” was a “Star Wars” reference, while Spock often called things illogical.
Leonard Nimoy, the actor who played Spock, weighed in on Twitter, saying: “Only a Vulcan mind meld will help with this congress.”
Additional Reporting by Roberta Rampton and Steve Holland; Editing by Will Dunham