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Obama's Latest Challenges Go Beyond The GOP

President Obama gestures as he speaks to workers at the Ford Kansas City Stamping Plant in Liberty, Mo., on Friday.
Pablo Martinez Monsivais
President Obama gestures as he speaks to workers at the Ford Kansas City Stamping Plant in Liberty, Mo., on Friday.

President Obama took his fiscal fight with congressional Republicans to America's heartland Friday. Speaking at a Ford assembly plant near Kansas City, Mo., Obama warned that the federal government could turn into a "deadbeat" unless Congress passes a stopgap spending bill and agrees to raise the debt limit within the next few weeks.

"I need you to help tell Congress: Pay our bills on time. Pass a budget on time. Stop governing from crisis to crisis. Put our focus back on where it should be: on you, the American people. On creating new jobs. On growing our economy. On restoring security for middle-class families," he said.

Congressional Republicans are trying to use the budget deadlines to extract concessions from the president on his signature health care law.

And they aren't alone in choosing this time to test the president's mettle — liberal Democrats have been pressuring Obama, too.

Fights With The Right

Friday's visit to the Ford factory might have been a happy occasion for the president. His rescue of the auto industry has worked out so well, Ford's just added a third shift at the plant.

And in less than two weeks, the insurance exchanges created by the Affordable Care Act are supposed to open for business.

But Republicans are still trying to undo that law, which passed over their strenuous objections in 2010.

On Friday, Obama complained about the latest tactic from House Republicans: stripping all funding for Obamacare from the federal budget as a condition for paying the rest of the government's bills.

"I'm happy to have that debate with them," Obama said. "But you don't have to threaten to blow the whole thing up just because you don't get your way, right?"

That's just what Republicans in the House did earlier Friday. GOP House Speaker John Boehner effectively dared the president to give up his health care plan if he wants to keep the government open.

"It's time for us to say no," Boehner said. "It's time to stop this before it causes any more damage to American families and American businesses."

Boehner himself has acknowledged the risks of holding the budget and the debt limit hostage to the health care fight.

He and other GOP leaders know that a government shutdown could backfire on Republicans. Still, the House speaker's hand was forced by the most conservative members of his party.

"Whenever we're trying to put together a plan ... we've got 233 members — all of whom have their own plan," he said. "It's tough to get them on the same track. We got there."

Pressure From The Left

Tea Party Republicans are hoping the president might blink. But liberal Democrats have been testing Obama as well. In recent weeks, progressive activists helped scuttle the president's plan to attack Syria and forced Larry Summers, Obama's first choice to be Federal Reserve chairman, to drop out of the running.

"Democrats in general are thinking beyond Obama and are willing to stand up to him if he's not representing the will of the people," said Adam Green, who heads the activist group Progressive Change Campaign Committee.

Obama still enjoys strong support among Democrats. But Green said progressives will be watching closely how the president handles the budget battle in the coming weeks.

"During 2012, there was some hesitance to criticize a president up for re-election," Green said. "But right now the general attitude is: We want to go on offense, not play defense. And if the president is willing to go there, great — we'll do things during his presidency. But if he's not willing to go there, we're going to be working with people like [Massachusetts Sen.] Elizabeth Warren to lay the foundation for big progressive change in the future."

Pulled hard from the left and pushed hard by the right, the president enters the fights of this fall hearing more from his challengers than from his champions.

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Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.
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