President Obama takes out the rhetorical knives

October 8, 2013

"Ransom." "Extortion." "Deadbeat." "Hostage-taking." "Blow the whole thing up." "Insane."

During a news conference Tuesday at the White House, President Obama stressed the importance of raising the debt ceiling. (The Washington Post)

Those are just a few of the words and phrases that President Obama used to describe (and deride) what he believes is the Republicans' strategic approach on the government shutdown and debt ceiling during a news conference Tuesday. (Full transcript here.)

That raising of the rhetorical stakes by the president comes just nine days before the country hits the deadline to increase the debt ceiling and suggests that he has no plans to hedge on his past pledges not to negotiate over reopening the government or paying the nation's credit card.

Obama made that sentiment quite clear early and often during the news conference. "We are not going to pay a ransom for America paying its bills," he said at one point. "We can't make extortion routine as part of our democracy," he said at another.

Obama also knocked down the idea that if Republicans hold out long enough -- and the debt deadline draws closer -- that he would be forced to come to the negotiating table on Republicans' terms. "I'm not budging when it comes to the full faith and credit of the United States," Obama asserted.

Yes, Obama was talking to the country. But, his real intended audience was a single person: John Boehner. Using such confrontational rhetoric, Obama wanted to show the speaker of the House that there simply is no easy way out of this game of chicken for Republicans. There isn't going to be a last-minute concession. There is no negotiation on the possibility of negotiating.

In fact, Obama seemed to take it even a step further -- noting that when he sees Boehner around Capitol Hill, he tells him "you should have taken the deal I offered you back then" in reference to the so-called "grand bargain" talks he and the speaker engaged in over the summer of 2011.

While Obama made his position crystal clear during a news conference that lasted more than an hour, it's far more difficult to gauge whether his white-hot rhetoric will have any impact on the position of Boehner and House Republicans.

It's hard to imagine Boehner -- and most House GOPers -- coming away from that news conference as anything other than annoyed at the way Obama framed the argument. (The line about "taking the deal" will be read by many Republicans as Obama goading Boehner.)

Annoyed or not, however, Republicans are now faced with a blunt reality: Obama can't walk back what he said on Tuesday in the space of the next week. To do so would be an act of political suicide. Making such a bold series of public statements means Obama is sticking to the "no negotiations" position.

That gives Boehner and Republicans a few not-so-great options:

1. Fold. Pass a clean continuing resolution and a debt-ceiling increase and hope Obama makes good on his pledge to "talk about anything" once the immediate crisis has passed.

2. Hope he bends. The closer we get to default, the more pressure Obama will feel to do something to avoid what he has described as a disastrous outcome for the American economy and world markets. If Republicans continue to hold the line, they could hope that pressure forces Obama to bend -- providing them enough wiggle room (maybe a short-term debt increase) to declare victory.

3. Let default happen. A political and policy risk of VAST proportions.

How Boehner chooses could well have major implications for the political prospects of both parties, not just in the 2014 midterms but also the 2016 presidential election. And he has nine days to make up his mind.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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