In summer 2011, as the debt ceiling loomed, Barack Obama saw his predicament in Solomonic terms. He was the president, charged with safeguarding the national economy. Republicans threatening default therefore had the leverage. They might have been prepared to split the baby. Obama was not willing to — like the true mother, he couldn’t — let that happen.
“There’s no doubt that the challenge we had here was ultimately I and [Treasury Secretary] Tim Geithner were responsible for averting another financial meltdown,” Obama later told Bob Woodward. “And so my interest in not playing chicken, or seeing any miscalculation here that leads to a default, was profound.”
Two long years later, the presidential calculus has been transformed. It boils down to: He has to be willing to split the baby in order to save it, or, more precisely, to prevent future baby-splitting.
In the administration’s sadder-but-wiser view, the no-negotiation-over-the-debt-ceiling line must be drawn brightly, once and for all, in order to avert a never-ending cascade of extortionist episodes. Otherwise, Obama and his successors will be subject to incessant, escalating demands for concessions. Better to edge up to, or even leap off, the cliff of default disaster now than to be saddled with it forevermore.
“The president has made clear that the era of threatening default has to be over,” White House economic adviser Gene Sperling said at a Politico Playbook Breakfast on Monday.
The White House is serious about not blinking — to a somewhat unsettling degree. It was disconcerting, during the lead-up to calamity in 2011, to hear administration officials so forthright about the ultimate weakness of their position. Now, my discomfort is reversed.
Has the administration over-learned the lessons of 2011? Is it being unhelpfully dogmatic in its refusal to negotiate? Don’t Republicans — particularly House Speaker John Boehner — need a face-saving bonbon to dangle in front of colleagues and base voters?
I put these concerns in question form for two reasons.
First, I’m not saying that the administration is mishandling this non-negotiation. Especially given Republicans’ assumption — based on past performance — that the president will ultimately blink, Obama may be right to err on the side of chest-thumping.
Second, let’s be clear: The fundamental fault is with Republicans who have been willing to push the boundaries of debt-ceiling brinkmanship to dangerous new extremes.
The need to lift the debt ceiling has regularly been an occasion to obtain budgetary concessions. But the tacit understanding has always been that the limit would be lifted in the end. The know-nothing notion that default would not be disastrous, whether on Treasury bonds or other government obligations, reflects the emergence of a new, scary faction of the Republican Party.
But the administration has a thin and wobbly tightrope to walk. The White House does not want to signal openness to negotiating on the debt ceiling. At the same time, it does not want to let Republicans successfully cast Obama and Democrats as the intransigent ones. That path becomes even more politically precarious as Republicans edge the discussion away from the unthinkable (repeal/defund/delay Obamacare) into the realm of the traditionally negotiable (discussions of spending levels, tax reform and the like).
Thus the president at the Federal Emergency Management Agency on Monday and his news conference Tuesday repeatedly touted his willingness to negotiate — later. “I am willing to work through all those issues,” Obama told reporters. “The only thing that our democracy can’t afford is a situation where one side says, ‘Unless I get my way and only my way, unless I get concessions before we even start having a serious give-and-take, I’ll threaten to shut down the government, or I will threaten to not pay America’s bills.’ ”
The glimmerings of an eventual agreement are beginning, slowly, to emerge. Democrats want relief from the straitjacket idiocy of “sequester” cuts. Republicans want entitlement reforms, including some that the president has already ponied up.
The riddle is how to get to the point where some such deal can be struck. The administration insists on handling the issues seriatim — first fund government and raise the ceiling, then we can talk. Congressional Democrats, seeing improved electoral prospects in 2014, are similarly disinclined to budge.
The wisdom of Solomon was that he could grasp the motivation of each mother and bluff accordingly. But the fundamental difference between biblical times and now is that Solomon was dealing with rational actors. Obama’s got Ted Cruz. Babies beware.