Obama plays hardball on debt ceiling, but can’t explain away the position he took as Senator

At his press conference today, President Obama reiterated that he will not engage in negotiations over raising the debt ceiling. He called on Republicans to raise the debt ceiling without conditions. Once the ceiling is raised, we can talk about reducing the debt, including through additional tax increases on upper income Americans in the form of changing the law on deductions, Obama said.

Obama introduced his discussion of the debt limit this way:

Now, the other congressionally imposed deadline coming up is the so-called debt ceiling, something most Americans hadn’t even heard of before two years ago.

It’s probably a good thing for Obama that most Americans didn’t hear of the debt ceiling earlier, because earlier, as a Senator, Obama voted several times against raising the ceiling. At that time he said that raising the debt ceiling would constitute “leadership failure.” Yet today, with the debt much larger than it was then, Obama argues that the ceiling should be raised as a pro forma matter.

No “leadership failure” here, Mr. President, right?

Obama continued:

The debt ceiling is not a question of authorizing more spending. Raising the debt ceiling does not authorize more spending. It simply allows the country to pay for spending that Congress has already committed to. These are bills that have already been racked up, and we need to pay them. So, while I’m willing to compromise and find common ground over how to reduce our deficits, America cannot afford another debate with this Congress about whether or not they should pay the bills they’ve already racked up.

Obama is right that raising the debt ceiling doesn’t authorize more spending. But raising it without changes in our spending habits will, as a practical matter, mean that the reckless spending continues unabated.

Moreover, while we do need to pay our debts, we also need to limit future debt. Addressing two problems at one time is a common practice sometimes referred to as political horse trading. This task isn’t beyond Obama’s capacity, he’s just not willing to do it here because he’s unserious about debt reduction. If Republicans want him even to pretend to be serious, they will need to stick to their guns, either on the debt ceiling, the sequester, or both.

Obama then listed the horrible things that might happen if the debt ceiling isn’t raised. Normally, this would be an argument in favor of negotiating to make sure the horribles don’t occur, as Obama did in 2011. That he won’t negotiate now shows that he believes he’s in a stronger position at this juncture.

His position is, indeed, stronger now, thanks to his reelection. Republicans will point to a poll by the Winston Group showing that more than two-thirds of Americans agree that “any increase in the nation’s debt limit must be accompanied by spending cuts and reforms of a greater amount.” But Obama may well believe that if the debt ceiling isn’t raised and a parade of horribles ensues, the public will forget about Obama’s refusal to agree to spending cuts and blame Republicans for the damage.

He may well be right. But let’s put off for another day the question of how Republicans should play this hand, and enjoy the exchange that took place when Major Garrett reminded Obama of his votes as Senator against raising the debt ceiling:

QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. President. As you well know, sir, finding votes for the debt ceiling can sometimes be complicated. You yourself as a member of the Senate voted against a debt ceiling increase. And in previous aspects of American history, President Reagan in 1985, President George Herbert Walker Bush in 1990, President Clinton in 1997 all signed deficit reduction deals that were contingent upon or in the context of raising the debt ceiling. You yourself four times have done that; three times those were related to deficit reduction or budget maneuvers.

What Chuck and I and I think many people are curious about is this new adamant desire on your part not to negotiate when that seems to conflict with the entire history in the modern era of American presidents in the debt ceiling and your own history on the debt ceiling. And doesn’t that suggest that we are going to go into a default situation, because no one is talking to each other about how to resolve this?

OBAMA: Well, no, Major. 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. I went through this just last year. 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, you know, 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.

Now, as I indicated before, I’m happy to have a conversation about how we reduce our deficits further in a sensible way, although one thing I want to point out is that the American people are also concerned about how we grow our economy, how we put people back to work, how we make sure that we finance our workers getting properly trained and our schools are giving our kids the education we deserve. There’s a whole growth agenda which will reduce our deficits that’s important, as well.

But what you’ve never seen is the notion that has been presented so far at least by the Republicans that deficit reduction will only count spending cuts, that we will raise the deficit — or the debt ceiling dollar for dollar on spending cuts. There are a whole set of rules that have been established that are impossible to meet without doing severe damage to the economy. And so what we’re not going to do is put ourselves in a position where in order to pay for spending that we’ve already incurred, that our two options are; we’re either going to profoundly hurt the economy, and hurt middle- class families, and hurt seniors, and hurt kids who are trying to go to college, or alternatively we’re going to blow up the economy. We’re not going to do that.

Plainly, Obama cannot reconcile his votes as a Senator with his present position that the debt ceiling must be raised no matter what. Instead, he creates a straw man — the notion that the Republicans won’t raise the debt ceiling unless they get “100 percent” of what they want.

To my knowledge, that is not the Republicans position. In any case, Obama has made an argument only for not giving Republicans 100 percent of what they want, not for refusing to negotiate.

The president’s apparent confidence that he’s holding a winning hand politically may be justified. But given the public’s desire (abstract though it is) for debt reduction and given Obama’s votes on this issue as Senator, it’s also possible that he is over-confident.

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