Did Obama “Poison the Well” in the Deficit Debate?

February 11, 2013
Cliffhanger, FRONTLINE’s investigation inside how Washington has failed to solve the country’s debt and deficit problems, airs Tuesday, February 12, at a special time on the night of President Obama’s State of the Union address. Check your local listings to find out when it will be broadcast on your local station.

When the Republican party’s numbers wunderkind Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin proposed an austere budget that would cut spending, lower taxes, repeal the president’s health care law and privatize medicare, the White House saw the plan as a direct assault.

And as Republicans rallied around Ryan’s budget, President Obama took to a speech at George Washington University in April of 2011 to condemn it and announce his own proposal for reducing the deficit.

Though he never mentioned Ryan by name, the speech “could have been titled ‘What’s Wrong with the Ryan Plan,'” as The Wall Street Journal noted. “I mean, Jesus, it was heavy,” remembers former  Sen. Alan Simpson. “It was tough and it was nasty.”

“This is a vision that says up to 50 million Americans have to lose their health insurance in order for us to reduce the deficit,” said the president. “Many are someone’s grandparents who wouldn’t be able afford nursing home care without Medicaid.  Many are poor children.  Some are middle-class families who have children with autism or Down’s syndrome.  Some are kids with disabilities so severe that they require 24-hour care.  These are the Americans we’d be telling to fend for themselves.”

What President Obama didn’t realize, his aides insist, was that Ryan had been invited to the event, and was sitting in the front row listening to the president blast his plan.

Ryan had attended the event thinking it would be an opportunity for the two sides to start to come together in order to negotiate. Instead, he sat taking notes and shaking his head in disgust. When the address was over, he made a quick exit, telling the president’s top economic adviser Gene Sperling, who had followed him out, that he thought the president had “poisoned the well.”

It would set the stage for the bitter, deeply contentious showdown over the country’s debt and deficit that only got uglier. Tomorrow night, FRONTLINE takes you inside that drama, exploring the clash of politics and personalities, the hard bargaining and the miscalculations behind Washington’s failure to solve the country’s debt and deficit problems.

“Cliffhanger is a case study in failed politics,” Bloomberg News noted in a review today. “Frontline peeks behind the grandstanding to observe the personal slights that were droplets of kerosene on a political blaze.”

Based on interviews with key players including Boehner, White House economic adviser Gene Sperling and Obama’s former Chief of Staff William Daley, the film explores how the country now faces a growing federal deficit, automatic spending cuts, a battle to keep the federal government operating, and yet another deadline for raising the debt ceiling. Check your local listings to find out when Cliffhanger will be broadcast on your local PBS station.

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