Posted by Matthew Rothschild on January 14, 2013

At his press conference today, Pres. Obama threw down the gauntlet.

He told the Republicans that he would not give in to their extortion on the national debt.

“Republicans in Congress have two choices here. They can act responsibly, and pay America’s bills, or they can act irresponsibly and put America through another economic crisis,” he said. “But they will not collect a ransom in exchange for not crashing the American economy. The financial wellbeing of the American people is not leverage to be used. The full faith and credit of the United States of America is not a bargaining chip. And they better choose quickly, because time is running short.”

A little later on, he reiterated that Republicans can’t put a gun to Americans’ heads and “simply dictate 100 percent of what they want all the time, or otherwise threaten that we destroy the American economy.”

That’s the “Give ’Em Hell, Barack” that a lot of progressives have been hoping for.

But two things Obama said made me worry.

First, he kept emphasizing, foolishly, the need to cut the deficit. “One component to growing our economy and broadening opportunity for the middle class is shrinking our deficits in a balanced and responsible way,” he said. But the economy is still too weak to be obsessing over the deficit; further reductions will actually lessen opportunity for the middle class and the poor.

And as Robert Reich has pointed out, “Federal deficits are dropping as a percent of the total economy. For the fiscal year ending in September 2009, the deficit was 10.1 percent of the gross domestic product, the value of all goods and services produced in America. In 2010, it was 9 percent. In 2011, 8.7 percent. In the 2012 fiscal year, it was down to 7 percent.”

The hyping of the deficit and the debt is a conservative, corporate trope. It’s an attempt to slash and shrink government so it can’t serve as a check on corporate power or a buffer against the cruelties of the market or of fate. Obama sometimes appears to recognize this; at other times, as he did at his press conference, he tends to buy the hype.

Second, I still worry that Obama is ready to make some awful bargain with John Boehner. The President said he was “open to some addition cuts,” and specified: “I’ve said I’m open to making modest adjustments to programs like Medicare to protect them from future generations.” If one of those “modest adjustments” is raising the eligibility age, it will be a raw deal for people in their low 60s who’ve been just hanging on to their jobs by their fingernails in hopes they can last until they qualify for Medicare.

What we saw in Obama’s press conference was the appearance of a new, tougher Obama alongside the old I’m willing to compromise on just about anything Obama.

The future of our social programs depends, in part, on who looks better in the Presidential mirror.

If you liked this story by Matthew Rothschild, the editor of The Progressive magazine, check out his story “Banning Semi-Automatic Weapons Is Not Enough."

Follow Matthew Rothschild @mattrothschild on Twitter