Testy Obama fails to break ground in last week of his first term

President Obama fielded mostly softball questions Monday in what was billed as his last news conference of his first term.

Obama broke no new ground in the 52-minute formal session in the White House East Room. But he effectively used the time to bash Republicans on the debt ceiling and gun control and frighten seniors, veterans and others if GOP House members balk at raising the federal borrowing limit.

“If congressional Republicans refuse to pay America’s bills on time, Social Security checks and veterans’ benefits will be delayed. We might not be able to pay our troops, or honor our contracts with small business owners,” Obama warned. “Food inspectors, air traffic controllers, specialists who track down loose nuclear material wouldn’t get their paychecks.”

Only seven reporters got to ask questions thanks in large part to the president’s long, windy soliloquies that ran nearly 7,000 words, according to the White House transcript.

Most questions from reporters were on the topic the president led off with, the upcoming fight in Congress over the debt ceiling. There were two questions on gun control which were largely evaded by saying he would talk more about his legislative recommendations later in the week. And there were two from a New York Times reporter who asked Obama to respond to those who say he doesn’t socialize enough and there is not enough diversity in his new cabinet appointees.

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He quipped his way out of the “socializing” question, drawing laughs when he said, “Now that my girls are getting older, they don't want to spend that much time with me anyway, so I'll be probably calling around, looking for somebody to play cards with me or something, because I'm getting kind of lonely in this big house. So maybe a whole bunch of members of the House Republican caucus want to come over and socialize more.”

The president got no questions on foreign policy, a topic he doesn’t like to talk about, although there is much to discuss about upcoming troop reductions in Afghanistan, the second anniversary of the Arab Spring, the ongoing bloody rebellion in Syria, Islamist terrorism in Mali, political unrest in Egypt and concern over China’s lagging economy.

The only really tough question Obama got came from Major Garrett of CBS News, who asked the president why he had a “new, adamant desire” not to negotiate with Republicans on the debt ceiling when other recent presidents did, and that he, Obama, voted against raising the debt ceiling in 2006 when he was still serving in the Senate.

But the president wriggled away from that one by saying, “I think if you look at the history, getting votes for the debt ceiling is always difficult, and budgets in this town are always difficult….But what’s different is we never saw a situation as we saw last year in which certain groups in Congress took such an absolutist position that we came within a few days of defaulting. And the fact of the matter is, is that we have never seen the debt ceiling used in this fashion, where the notion was, you know what, we might default unless we get 100 percent of what we want. That hasn’t happened.”

Maybe not, but he never explained why he voted against raising the debt ceiling as a senator when he is all for it now.