President Obama held the last press conference of his first term in office today. He used the opportunity to clearly stake out his position on the looming debt ceiling fight. Obama's position: he's not going to have this fight. Period. Congress can either pass a bill he can sign, or we're going to hit the debt ceiling. Either way, Obama will not treat the debt ceiling as a bargaining chip in the ongoing partisan struggle over the federal budget. Obama will refuse to negotiate over the debt ceiling at all, and is not even entertaining ideas of any sort of "Plan B."
President Obama was astonishingly clear. What happens now is going to be interesting, because Obama may have changed the whole narrative in this debate. If it works, Obama will emerge from the fight stronger politically. If it doesn't work, Obama risks being blamed himself for a debt ceiling catastrophe by the public. If Obama backs down and does haggle over the debt ceiling, then he will disappoint his base and any future ultimatum he issues will be laughed at Republicans.
It's a gutsy move in a very high-stakes game. What Obama didn't really highlight in his press conference is that, in the next two months or so, America is facing not one more fiscal crisis but in reality three. Others will make this case for him: Republicans will still have plenty of "leverage" and plenty of dire circumstances to threaten even if the debt ceiling is taken off the table. There will be two other gigantic budgetary battles to resolve, so they can fight on those battlefields instead (for the record: the "sequester" cuts that were kicked down the road for only two months, and the "continuing resolution" that is going to be necessary to fund a budget for the rest of the fiscal year). Republicans can threaten to shut down the federal government in these battles -- a dire enough "hostage" for them to take, to put it into their terms -- and yet even this won't be playing Russian roulette with the entire world's economy. Which is what the Republican debt ceiling threats truly amount to, in very blunt terms.
Obama is still leaving these doors open. While he (understandably) didn't come right out and say "Republicans will be able to shut the government down if they really want to -- twice, in fact -- before the end of March," Obama will still have to fight these two other budgetary fights. Removing the debt ceiling crisis from the equation doesn't mean there won't be a big philosophical debate on cutting spending, deficit reduction, entitlement reform, and all the rest of the Republicans' "to do" list. The other two fights come with their own built-in deadlines, so Republicans can play the whole "we're going to take this until one minute before midnight" game not only once again, but twice again. The House and the Senate can have plenty of bitterly fought negotiations, and they'll have plenty of details to argue over.
It would have been amusing if Obama had directly addressed this, and said something along the lines of: "Isn't threatening to shut down the federal government enough for you guys? Isn't it bad enough that you're playing 'chicken' with that hot potato? Do you really need to use as a hostage not only our country's economy, but the whole world's economy?" But he really didn't need to go that far. Others can make this point for him, because he staked out his position in clear enough terms as it was.
Obama has now taken the position that we're going to have those political budgetary fights without holding the world's economy hostage while doing so. That is his bright line in the sand. He framed this several times during his press conference as: "Either Congress pays its bills or it doesn't." No middle ground. He further went on to say he'd consider anything Congress sent him, saying: "If John Boehner and Mitch McConnell think that they can come up with a plan that somehow meets their criteria that they've set for why they will -- when they will raise the debt ceiling, they're free to go ahead and try." In other words: send him a bill. If they have some great plan they want to push, then set it down into a bill's language, and pass it through both houses of Congress. But if they can't do that, then they have only two options: pass a clean debt ceiling bill, or default. In other words, if Republicans can't get anything acceptable through the Senate, then they are the ones who need a "Plan B" -- a bill which raises the debt ceiling with no strings attached.
President Obama, by holding a press conference before this whole process even really gets started (it should come as no surprise to anyone that Congress is currently on yet another multi-week vacation), is leading from the bully pulpit this time around. He is framing the debate on his terms, quite forcefully. Obama characterized the debate by boldly stating: "America is not a deadbeat nation," and went on to swear "what I will not do is to have that negotiation with a gun at the head of the American people." That is language everyone can understand, and it truly captures the scope of the Republican tactics. Obama used a metaphor he's been using for a while at one point during the speech, which is perhaps the best way to introduce the public to the argument:
Everybody here understands this. I mean, this is not a complicated concept. You don't go out to dinner and then eat all you want, and then leave without paying the check. And if you do, you're breaking the law. And Congress should think about it the same way that the American people do. You don't -- now, if Congress wants to have a debate about maybe we shouldn't go out to dinner next time, maybe we should go to a more modest restaurant, that's fine. That's a debate that we should have. But you don't say, in order for me to control my appetites, I'm going to not pay the people who already provided me services, people who already lent me the money. That's not showing any discipline. All that's doing is not meeting your obligations. You can't do that.
And that's not a credible way to run this government. We've got to stop lurching from crisis to crisis to crisis, when there's this clear path ahead of us that simply requires some discipline, some responsibility and some compromise. That's where we need to go. That's how this needs to work.
Obama doesn't just want to win this argument, he wants to utterly reshape the argument as one that America just cannot afford to have. Politically "winning" this fight for him now means not only assuring the world that America will pay the bills she's already racked up, but assuring the financial community that we're never going to use this as a political hostage ever again.
It's a risky strategy, because anything less than such a sweeping resolve is now going to be seen as weakening Obama's political hand. But he raised these stakes on his own, so we'll see how it all plays out. Obama has two high-profile events in the next few weeks, and you can bet he's going to use them to make his case on this issue. I expect to see his "going out to dinner" metaphor (or one like it) in both his inaugural address and in the State Of The Union speech.
For the past few weeks, many have been playing the parlor game of toying with the idea of Obama pulling some sort of ace out of his sleeve in the debt ceiling showdown (full disclosure: I've engaged in this game myself, a few times). This has led to discussions of the 14th Amendment, trillion-dollar coins, and scrip (or "IOUs"). The White House has been shooting these ideas down, one by one. They insist that they don't have a Plan B, don't need a Plan B, and aren't going to use any Plan B options whatsoever. This is (as they see it) going to actually increase pressure on Republicans to come up with something before the deadline. If there is no safety net, it's going to be a catastrophic fall, to put it another way.
The strategy is bold, but risky. Obama may not solve this argument for all presidents for all time, but he may also get what he wants this time around -- a clean debt ceiling bill. If he can build public support and awareness of his position in the next few weeks -- before the real negotiating even gets underway -- then Republicans may just decide they'll fight on the other two budgetary battlegrounds rather than this particular one. Some on the right are already advocating "taking the issue off the table" by just passing a clean bill. Wall Street and Big Business are certainly on the side of not defaulting, and likely will make their voices heard on Capitol Hill to Republicans, in no uncertain terms. John Boehner may decide this fight simply isn't worth it.
In other words, Obama could win a big political victory on the issue, if things go his way. If he can get Republicans over to his side of the stark line he just drew in the sand, he will definitely have shown leadership on the issue. In his press conference today, he certainly sounded like a man who was not going to give in on the issue. We'll see how firm he stands in the upcoming weeks, but if today was any indication, Obama is not interested in "hostage negotiations" this time around.
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