‘What the American people are obsessing about’

President Obama hosted the latest in a series of debt-related press conferences this morning, and while he didn’t have much in the way of good news to offer, there were a couple of noteworthy moments.

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

If you have time, it’s worth watching (or at least reading the transcript), if only to see the urgency with which the president is treating the matter. Obama explained why the debt ceiling needs to be raised, what happens if we don’t, and why he wants a “balanced” compromise to resolve the dispute. The president seemed to especially enjoy emphasizing that the fact recent polls show most Republicans nationwide, as well as Republican officials from previous administrations, also want a package that includes some revenues.

Perhaps the most newsworthy aspect of the press conference was the president’s acknowledgement, in response to a good question from ABC’s Jake Tapper, that the bipartisan negotiations included discussion of significant Medicare changes, including means testing and raising the retirement age. Obama didn’t endorse either change, but he conceded he’s been “willing to look at” these entitlement “reforms” proposed by Republicans, though he again ruled out Paul Ryan’s privatization scheme.

The president quickly added, though, that if future retirees — today’s seniors would be unaffected — are going to be asked to accept a sacrifice, millionaires and billionaires should be expected to do the same. Republicans, obviously, disagree.

Obama also, thankfully, twice rejected calls for a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution. “We don’t need a constitutional amendment to do [eventually balance the budget]; what we need to do is to do our jobs,” he said.”

But I was most interested in the president’s comments about the economy, including his explicit endorsement of a payroll tax cut and an extension of unemployment insurance. It was reassuring to hear Obama make clear that, the debate of the day notwithstanding, he hasn’t completely forgotten what actually matters.

“Look, we’ve been obsessing over the last couple of weeks about raising the debt ceiling and reducing the debt and deficit. I’ll tell you what the American people are obsessing about right now is that unemployment is still way too high and too many folks’ homes are still underwater, and prices of things that they need, not just that they want, are going up a lot faster than their paychecks are if they’ve got a job.

“And so even after we solve this problem we still got a lot of work to do…. My point is that those are a whole other set of issues that we need to be talking about and working on. I’ve got an infrastructure bank bill that would start putting construction workers back to work rebuilding our roads and bridges. We should be cooperating on that.

“Most of the things that I’ve proposed to help spur on additional job growth are traditionally bipartisan. I’ve got three trade deals sitting ready to go. And these are all trade deals that the Republicans told me were their top priorities. They said this would be one of the best job creators that we could have. And yet it’s still being held up because some folks don’t want to provide trade adjustment assistance to people who may be displaced as a consequence of trade. Surely we can come up with a compromise to solve those problems.”

That would seem likely, if only GOP lawmakers were sincere about wanting to improve economic conditions.

Obama also took some time to note resistance to his debt-reduction efforts on the left, arguing, “[I]f the only thing we’re talking about over the next year, two years, five years, is debt and deficits, then it’s very hard to start talking about how do we make investments in community colleges so that our kids are trained, how do we actually rebuild $2 trillion worth of crumbling infrastructure. If you care about making investments in our kids and making investments in our infrastructure and making investments in basic research, then you should want our fiscal house in order, so that every time we propose a new initiative somebody doesn’t just throw up their hands and say, ‘Ah, more big spending, more government.'”

It was an interesting pitch. I’m not sure if it was a persuasive pitch, but by the president’s reasoning, the left’s ambitions are stunted by the deficit and debt. (Indeed, though Obama didn’t mention it, there’s ample evidence that Republicans created massive deficits and debt precisely to limit the left’s ambitions.) For the president, we can pursue bold, progressive ideas with greater ease once fiscal issues are resolved.

We know Republicans don’t see it that way, but it was at least helpful to get a better sense of the president’s thinking.