Here’s what Obama was really saying about the debt ceiling

September 27, 2013

Obama has spoken more with the president of Iran than the speaker of the House lately. (Charles Dharapak/AP)

The big news in President Obama's comments in the White House briefing room Friday afternoon was his announcement that he had a conversation with Iranian president Hasan Rouhani on Friday, the first communication at that level with Iran since 1979. It raises the possibility of some melting in the frigid relationship between the United States and one of the three members of George W. Bush's "Axis of Evil."

Would that there was a similar detente with House Republicans.

With the nation hurtling toward yet another self-induced fiscal crisis, first with a possible government shutdown Tuesday and then, more severely, when there is risk of government default if the debt ceiling isn't raised by Oct. 17 or so, Obama had a tone of defiance. There was no new policy content in his remarks, but there was some new framing that gives a sign of how the administration will be handling its PR effort as these twin deadlines approach.

The most important idea from the president has to do with the debt ceiling, where the stakes are highest. Obama's line, ever since the last time this was an issue in the fiscal cliff negotiations back in December, has been: I will not negotiate on the debt ceiling. In particular, in his afternoon remarks, he tried to reframe the debate around the idea that Republicans have a moral obligation, for the sake of the country, to raise the debt ceiling.

Here are the key comments:

Some Republicans have suggested that unless I agree to an even longer list of demands, not just gutting the health-care law but cutting taxes for millionaires or rolling back rules on big banks and polluters or other pet projects that they’d like to see, and they’ve been trying to get past over the last couple years, that they would push the button, throw America into default for the first time in history and risk throwing us back into a recession.  . . .

Voting for the Treasury to pay America’s bills is not a concession to me. That — that — that — that’s not doing me a favor. That’s simply carrying out the solemn responsibilities that come with holding office up there.

I don't know how I can be more clear about this: Nobody gets to threaten the full faith and credit of the United States just to extract political concessions. No one gets to hurt our economy and millions of innocent people just because there are a couple of laws that you do not like. It has not been done in the past. We're not going to start doing it now.

I'm not going to start setting a precedent, not just for me, but for future presidents, where one chamber in Congress can basically say each time there needs to be a vote to make sure Treasury pays its bills, we're not going to sign it unless our particular hobby horse gets advanced.

Imagine if you had a Republican president and a Democratic speaker, and the Democratic speaker said, well, we're not going to pass the debt ceiling unless we raise corporate taxes by 40 percent or unless we pass background checks on guns or whatever other list of agenda items Democrats were interested in. Does anybody actually think that we would be hearing from Republicans that that was acceptable behavior? That’s not how our constitutional system is designed. We are not going to do it.

We probably shouldn't take the president's claim that he will not negotiate on the debt ceiling at all at face value. There have regularly been negotiations in the past between Congress and the White House over concessions that will accompany a debt ceiling increase. As Glenn Kessler notes, that has even included non-budget-related items.

But the president is arguing something a little more subtle: That he will not engage in debt ceiling negotiations with a gun to his head. If Republicans were to acknowledge up front that they will move legislation to raise the debt ceiling in plenty of time to prevent a new financial crisis, but that they need a few concessions here and there to make the vote palatable, the president would almost certainly play ball.

What he is signaling he won't do is engage in a negotiation where the other side has a combination of utterly unrealistic expectations (undoing the president's greatest legislative victory, less than a year after he won reelection) and a threat to risk global financial chaos to get it (by allowing a default).

Think of it as a negotiation in a different context, over selling a house. Obama has a house for sale, and his asking price is $300,000. He is facing an opponent (the hardline wing of the House Republican party) who is offering $1,000 and threatening to blow up the house if there is no deal.

Obama isn't saying he won't negotiate. He's saying he'll only negotiate once the offering price is something plausible, say $200,000, and the threat to blow up the house is off the table.

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Lydia DePillis · September 27, 2013