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'Fiscal Cliff' Message Repeats Itself


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm David Greene.

Politicians, they love to stay on message, don't they? Even when there's not much to spin, they'll spin.

MONTAGNE: Take last night. President Obama met with House Speaker John Boehner. Both sides said the exchange was frank. Lines of communication remain open.

GREENE: We have no idea what the two men said behind closed doors as they work to avoid spending cuts and tax increases in January. We do know the public message hasn't changed for weeks. Here's NPR's Tamara Keith.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Most weekdays over the past couple of weeks, House Speaker John Boehner has stood before cameras and microphones to give an update on the talks.

REPRESENTATIVE JOHN BOEHNER: Good morning, everyone. Morning, everyone. Morning, everyone.

KEITH: And his message has been remarkably consistent. Or you could say repetitive. The theme, stated in various ways: We're here, we're ready. The president's just not willing to negotiate.

BOEHNER: Because right now the American people have to be scratching their heads and wondering when is the president going to get serious. Now, it's clear, the president's just not serious about cutting spending. It's time for the president, if he's serious, to come back to us with a counteroffer.

KEITH: And on the other side of Pennsylvania Avenue, almost every day, the president's spokesman Jay Carney stands before the cameras and microphones and also says more or less the same thing: We have a plan. The Republicans are the ones who aren't being reasonable.

JAY CARNEY: The president has, for a long time now, had on the table the only balanced and specific proposal - a balanced package - to have a balanced package.

KEITH: To which Boehner says...

BOEHNER: I've came out the day after the election to put revenues on the table to take a step toward the president to try to resolve this.

KEITH: Now, those revenues would come from closing loopholes and limiting deductions, and the speaker hasn't said which ones. Still, he argues it's the president's turn to make a concession. And so...

BOEHNER: It's now up to the White House to show us how they're going to cut spending and give us the balanced agreement that the president has talked about for weeks.

KEITH: To which the White House through spokesman Jay Carney says the president has been plenty specific and the Republicans are the ones who need to name the cuts they want.

CARNEY: We look forward to specificity from the Republicans. If the Republicans have specifics that they want to put forward, they ought to do that. You know, what we have not seen yet is any kind of specificity from Republicans on how they would do it differently.

KEITH: And around they go. If they can't reach an agreement by year's end, taxes will rise on virtually everyone and automatic across-the-board spending cuts will kick in, which has prompted a new, and now oft-repeated, charge from the speaker.

BOEHNER: And the longer the White House slow-walks this process - slow walk any agreement - to slow walk our economy right to the edge of the fiscal cliff.

KEITH: So, what's up with all this new day, same old message business? Kathleen Hall Jamieson is director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: What Jay Carney and Speaker Boehner are doing in repeating their positions and blaming the other side is communicating to their base that they are holding their own, they are standing for their principles. They are putting up the good fight.

KEITH: And this, she says, creates the space to negotiate behind closed doors and possibly get something done, though it's hard to tell right now if that's actually what's happening.

JAMIESON: You could be establishing to your base that you're holding your own and getting something done. Or you could be establishing that you're holding your own and not getting anything done. Either way, what you're doing is establishing to your base that you are fighting for what they believe in.

KEITH: Jamieson says one of the axioms of communication is: redundancy is retention, which means, of course, by repeating the repetitions...

JAMIESON: Basically, their press strategy is working.

KEITH: Tamara Keith, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.
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