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Barack Obama's Super-Dumb 2006 Debt Ceiling Speech, Remembered

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OBAMA DEBT CEILING
President Barack Obama speaks during a press conference in the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House in Washington, DC, October 8, 2013, as the crisis over a US government shutdown and debt ceiling standoff deepens. (SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images) | Getty

Over at Slate, Matt Yglesias digs into the speech that then-Sen. Barack Obama gave back in 2006 to preface his "no" vote on raising the debt ceiling. The speech is a useful thing to go back and reexamine amid the current debt ceiling hysteria, and it will probably not surprise you to learn that it is scintillatingly inane. Here is the first paragraph:

The fact that we are here today to debate raising America's debt limit is a sign of leadership failure.

Oh, my God, I'm just going to stop it right there because the first sentence, in and of itself, is stupid enough to get my breakfast to repeat on me. This is an idiotic premise wrapped in one of the Beltway's hoariest cliches. Obviously, the periodic necessity of raising the debt ceiling is not a failure of "leadership" or anything else -- it's just a sign of the fact that we've decided that "raising" a "debt ceiling" is a periodic necessity! When you raise the debt ceiling, all you are doing is crossing over a very low bar in honoring your obligations. Does one "lead" when one pays one's rent on the first of every month? Is it really a matter for "debate?"

He continues:

It is a sign that the U.S. Government can't pay its own bills. It is a sign that we now depend on ongoing financial assistance from foreign countries to finance our Government's reckless fiscal policies. Over the past 5 years, our federal debt has increased by $3.5 trillion to $8.6 trillion. That is "trillion" with a "T." That is money that we have borrowed from the Social Security trust fund, borrowed from China and Japan, borrowed from American taxpayers. And over the next 5 years, between now and 2011, the President’s budget will increase the debt by almost another $3.5 trillion.

As you can see, Obama is not even talking about the debt ceiling! The debt ceiling is raised, from time to time, because Congress has passed bills and allocated money, and the need to honor those past obligations is a done deal. There's no "backsies" on that. Forming the basis of Obama's objections, here, are matters that have nothing to do with the debt ceiling: he objects to the deficits run up by then-President George W. Bush, and, more critically, he objects to the spending priorities of the Bush administration.

All of which is fairly routine. I'm sure many Democratic senators offered similar opinions on these topics on hundreds of occasions throughout 2006. Obama, in this instance, goes on and on, like so:

This year, the Federal Government will spend $220 billion on interest. That is more money to pay interest on our national debt than we'll spend on Medicaid and the State Children's Health Insurance Program. That is more money to pay interest on our debt this year than we will spend on education, homeland security, transportation, and veterans benefits combined. It is more money in one year than we are likely to spend to rebuild the devastated gulf coast in a way that honors the best of America.

There's really nothing unnatural or inexplicable here. We expect members of any opposition party to criticize a president like this. But Obama reaffirms his inane premise at the end of his spiel:

Increasing America's debt weakens us domestically and internationally. Leadership means that ''the buck stops here.'' Instead, Washington is shifting the burden of bad choices today onto the backs of our children and grandchildren. America has a debt problem and a failure of leadership. Americans deserve better.

I therefore intend to oppose the effort to increase America's debt limit.

As Yglesias notes:

This is just rank demagoguery. As Obama himself explained yesterday, it's simply not the case that increasing the debt limit causes the United States to owe more money. The gap between revenue and expenditures exists one way or another. Lifting the statutory debt ceiling simply allows that gap to exist without causing secondary and tertiary economic disruptions.

That's 100 percent correct. Where Obama goes badly astray is with this whole "therefore" part, in which he implies that opposing the raising of the debt ceiling should follow, as a natural consequence, from his objections to the Bush administration's budget and policy priorities. This is all wrong. No matter how much you object to a level of indebtedness or the way in which money is being spent or allocated, the debt ceiling is not a mechanism that reverses deficit trajectories or resets spending priorities. It's a simple affirmation of the fact that Congress has obligations it is compelled to honor, or risk default.

Now contemporary critics of Obama point to this speech as an example of hypocrisy, a charge that might stick if they weren't all rushing to take the position that Obama took in 2006! Nevertheless, one question any rational critic of this position might ask, is, "Why did everyone just wave away this objectively stupid speech at the time he made it?"

That's a fair question. What I can tell you about this particular period in our political life is that back then, it was sort of a silly tradition for members of the party out of power to give stupid grandstanding speeches whenever the need to raise the debt ceiling arose, and a few, like Obama, cast symbolic votes against doing so. Mind you, these "no" votes were calibrated in such a way that they'd not impede the passage of a clean debt ceiling hike.

And that's why the speech got ignored. I won't say that it was a "more innocent time," but it was a time that provided for a controlled release of this kind of stupidity for the sole purpose of scoring a few easy political points. It's sort of cheap, bush league stuff, but as Yglesias points out, Obama wasn't trying to stage a hostage crisis that pushed America to a brink, like today's House Republicans are:

To use a technical term, what Obama's doing here is bullshitting. The debt ceiling bill has majority support in both houses and is clearly going to pass. Rather than doing the right thing and voting "yes," Obama has decided to make a "no" vote and then deliver a speech denouncing George W. Bush's fiscal policy. But he's not organizing a filibuster. The fact that the bill passed the Senate 52-48 is a huge tell. Nothing passes the Senate with 52 votes if the minority party is actually trying to stop it from passing. Obama didn't demand the partial repeal of the Bush tax cuts as the price for his debt ceiling vote because he didn't demand anything as his price for his debt ceiling vote. There was no negotiation, no demand, no effort to block passage, and actually no effort to do anything at all. It was just a forum for silly speeches.

That's all worth noting. But what's also worth noting -- and yes, this is all done with the benefit of hindsight -- is that these speeches actually did some harm, and those of us who paid them no mind, believing them to be just part of the silly pageantry of debt ceiling increases, are complicit in causing that harm.

When you permit stupid ideas to go out into the world without putting a check on them, one of the natural consequences is that stupidity gets legitimized. Obama's in the rather unique position to rue the day he indulged himself in this tradition, and the rest of us are in the unique position to know better the next time anyone else tries to participate in it. It's all fun and games until you shoot your own eye out.

READ THE WHOLE THING:
It's Worth Actually Reading Obama's 2006 Debt Ceiling Speech [Slate]

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