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Obama won’t find safe harbor in 14th Amendment

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Pablo Martinez Monsivais AP President Barack Obama talks about the ongoing budget ceiling negotiations, Friday, July 29, 2011, in the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais) Congress had still not passed a debt limit deal as of Friday morning, and prospects were uncertain headed into the weekend with default slated for Tuesday. And as the deadline creeps ever closer, predictions of doom and gloom have only increased.

The possible lack of a deal is also also putting President Obama in an unenviable position of watching Congress try to figure it out, and not being able to do much of anything about it.

Or can he?

Bubbling below the surface for a long time has been the idea – pushed largely by liberals – that Obama doesn’t need Congress to raise the debt limit at all. The supporters of such a plan contend that the 14th Amendment to the Constitution gives the president authority to protect the full faith and credit of the United States Government, and that if it comes down to it, Obama can simply raise the debt limit himself, unilaterally.

The White House, for a long time, deflected questions about whether this was a viable legal option, a tactic that only allowed the debate to continue.

This week, though, White House press secretary Jay Carney finally discarded that idea as not an option. But as a debt deal looked more elusive heading into the weekend, talk about what Obama can do without a deal will only continue. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), for one, says Obama should give the 14th Amendment a good, hard look.

Despite the White House weighing in this week against it, actually going the 14th Amendment route – a.k.a. the “nuclear option” – wouldn’t be that hard to explain, at least initially. The theory goes like this: ‘Congress couldn’t get it done, and I had to avert a crisis, by any means necessary. It wasn’t an option before, but I did what I had to.’

If he invoked this strategy, about the only thing that Obama would gain politically is credit for having avoided a default. But politically speaking, it’s not at all clear that’s worth the price the president would pay.

First, the decision would likely set off an extensive legal and public relations battle about the president’s powers. Members of Congress – including liberals – are already upset about Obama’s decision to intervene in the armed conflict in Libya without Congress’s consent, and adding to the brew a never-before-attempted Constitutional maneuver would allow the other side to pretty easily paint a picture of a president who thinks his authority has no bounds.

There would also likely be lawsuits challenging the president’s decision to unilaterally life the debt ceiling. Tea party activists and members of Congress see the debt ceiling vote as leverage for them to get what they want – i.e. smaller government and spending cuts. If all of a sudden, a president can raise the debt ceiling without the consent of the Congress, that leverage is gone, both now and in the future.

“If [Obama] did so, it would immediately be challenged and would take a year-plus to get sorted out,” said Doug Heye, a former top aide at the Republican National Committee.

There is also the matter of whether Obama would even get credit for the maneuver. It’s much harder to convince Americans of a crisis that never happened than it is to convince them that you pulled the country out of a crisis that actually did happen.

Democratic pollster Fred Yang said Obama could do use the “nuclear option,” in good faith, if he’s 90 percent sure it would pass legal muster, but even then, Yang isn’t convinced it would constitute a P.R. victory.

“If you have a solution, make sure it is solving a problem,” Yang said. “I’m not sure Americans see a huge problem yet.”

And even if Obama can convince Americans that there is a problem, that what he’s done is legal and fair, and that it averted a catastrophe, there’s still the matter of the economy.

The business community has made it clear that, absent a so-called “grand bargain,” that significantly trims the deficit, the United States risks having its credit downgraded. Obama’s decision may avoid a default, but it wouldn’t necessarily calm fears about the underlying problems with the country’s debt.

And that could further hurt the economy, which is already a huge liability for Obama heading into 2012.

In the end, what looks like a simple solution to some is fraught with all kinds of political problems. And that’s why the White House has been so hesitant to embrace it – or even speak of it, really.

“I think it is one of those ‘too clever’ ideas that, when you reflect on its ramifications, does a lot of bad things,” said GOP consultant Dan Hazelwood.

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