The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Obama seeks to flip the script on debt ceiling

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The debt ceiling debate began in earnest Monday, with President Obama drawing a line in the sand at a White House press conference.

And as with the last major budget debate, Obama is attempting to do more than merely win the debate — he's first trying to change the terms of it altogether.

Rather than argue over whether the debt ceiling should be raised to authorize more borrowing, Obama is instead arguing that Congress is voting simply to pay the bills that it has already racked up — a semantic difference, perhaps, but a very important one at the same time.

In effect, Obama is trying to shift the burden of failure to Republicans in much the same way he did during the fiscal cliff debate.

When the Bush tax cuts came up for renewal two years ago, Obama and the Democrats lost the battle and all of the tax cuts were renewed for two years. The problem at the time was that Democrats were perceived as the ones holding up the renewal of the tax cuts because they insisted on letting them expire for the wealthiest Americans.

When the tax cuts came up for renewal again during the fiscal cliff, though, Obama flipped the script. Rather than allow Democrats to be labeled tax-raisers, he painted Republicans as holding up the tax cuts for 98 percent of Americans in the name of also renewing them for the wealthiest 2 percent.

Thanks to the bully pulpit and the GOP's lack of cohesion, that framing eventually took hold, with Republicans acknowledging that Obama had the upper hand in a negotiation that he had lost just two years earlier.

“Some people think that’s our leverage in the debate; it’s the Democrats’ leverage in the debate,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), who was among the first Republicans to urge his party to allow the tax cuts for the wealthy to expire.

Obama is attempting essentially the same trick with the debt ceiling.

While many people understand the debt ceiling as raising Congress' authority to borrow money, Obama is trying to reframe it was merely allowing the Treasury to pay the bills the Congress has accumulated.

"I want to be clear about this: The debt ceiling is not a question of authorizing more spending," Obama said. "Raising the debt ceiling does not authorize more spending. It simply allows the country to pay for spending that Congress has already committed to."

Obama made that argument repeatedly Monday, and it was clearly a point of emphasis:

* "There’s one way to deal with it, and that is for Congress to authorize me to pay for those items of spending that they have already authorized."

* "You don’t go out to dinner and then, you know, eat all you want and then leave without paying the check. And if you do, you’re breaking the law. And Congress is — should think about it the same way that the American people do."

* "But you don’t — 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."

* And he said twice: "We are not a deadbeat nation."

This, really, is the debate before the debate (kind of like the shirt before the shirt). And it might be the most important part of this whole process.

Republicans have labeled Obama as a "big spender" with considerable success, but he's now trying to argue that it's actually Congress that has racked up that debt, and now it's time to pay the piper.

Republicans, not surprisingly, disagree with this framing of the debate, but it might be hard for them to win. After all, the Constitution makes clear that Congress has the authority to spend and borrow money, not the president.

The question is whether you believe that the money is already spent and the bills are already racked up. Republicans can argue that spending cuts would make it so those same bills could be paid off without raising the debt ceiling.

It will be incumbent on the GOP to come up with a focused and articulate response to Obama's new framing of the debate.

Because as the fiscal cliff showed, if they can't win the semantic battle, they'll have a tough time winning the larger battle.