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Biden’s problem with the debt ceiling blame game

The president and the Democrats don’t appear to have the upper hand as much as Obama did. A new poll shows slightly more Americans would blame Biden for a default.

Uncertainty over the debt ceiling has reached a level not seen in years after a narrow House Republican majority conditioned a debt increase on spending cuts. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post)
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President Biden has backed off his no-negotiation-only-a-“clean”-increase-will-do approach to the debt ceiling. Ditto House Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), who said Monday that he was open to a spending freeze to get the deal done.

It’s become clear that any type of resolution by the early-June deadline will involve some sort of compromise. And that’s not what most Democrats wanted to see, especially because it would involve giving up something now and emboldening Republicans to demand concessions in later such debates.

So why the change in posture by Biden? And how might it affect what’s to come?

Part of the shift can be attributed to what defines Biden as a politician. He fashions himself a dealmaker — someone willing to cross the aisle to get things done. Undoubtedly, he would like to burnish those credentials ahead of a 2024 reelection campaign, pairing a debt ceiling deal with a bipartisan infrastructure bill, the most significant gun bill in 30 years and some other, smaller pieces of legislation.

But these fights are also, to a large degree, about leverage. And Biden doesn’t seem to have as much as the last Democratic president who faced such debt ceiling demands from Republicans, Barack Obama.

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(Illustration by Elena Lacey/The Washington Post; Eric Lee/Bloomberg; Jabin Botsford; Matt McClain)
If U.S. debt ceiling isn’t raised by deadline, what would default mean? 7 outcomes that experts worry about most.
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The most recent polling shows Americans pretty evenly divided on whom they would blame for a potentially catastrophic default on the nation’s debt. A Washington Post/ABC News poll earlier this month showed 39 percent would blame congressional Republicans more, while 36 percent would blame Biden more. In a Marist College poll Tuesday, the split was 45-43. In the latest poll, from Fox News, the result actually flipped, with 47 percent blaming Biden and 44 percent blaming the GOP.

These polls are basically unheard of in recent debt ceiling fights.

The blame question was somewhat close early in the 2011 fight, but polling soon showed voters preparing to blame Republicans more by 15 points, 18 points and even 21 points.

Things were a bit closer in 2013, when a debt ceiling fight was paired with a government shutdown. But polling at the tail end showed a clear edge for Democrats. A Pew Research Center poll showed Americans blaming Republicans more by nine points, while a CBS News poll showed the gap at 11 points.

Were the splits today similar to then, you might see a more hard-line approach from Biden and the Democrats because they would be more confident that Republicans might own whatever adverse outcome would result and would have to back down. But the current numbers apparently don’t instill such confidence, which Biden seemed to subtly nod to this weekend.

Pressed on the matter by a Fox News reporter, Biden maintained that, “On the merits, based on what I’ve offered, I would be blameless” if there were a default.

But Biden also acknowledged that’s not necessarily how it would be perceived.

“I think there are some MAGA Republicans in the House who know the damage that it would do to the economy,” Biden said. “And because I am president and presidents are responsible for everything, Biden would take the blame, and that’s the one way to make sure Biden’s not reelected.”

There’s a chicken-and-egg question here. One way to look at it is that Biden is responding to the polls; another is that he’s trying to adjust Americans’ perception of the blame game down the stretch.

A reality of the current debate is that Republican leadership is beholden to its right flank — even more than it was in 2011 and 2013. The GOP’s House majority is so tight, and the House Freedom Caucus was given such leverage during Kevin McCarthy’s speakership votes that there are real questions about how far the GOP will try to take this. To the extent that Biden and House Democrats look reasonable — like they gave significantly from their initial position, and Republicans won’t take yes for an answer — it could help Biden frame the choice for voters ahead of 2024.

That assumes people are truly tuning in to the particulars. To some degree, this is about gut feelings and how people regard the two sides more broadly. (Also, polls generally show Americans giving wildly different answers on whether they want a debt ceiling increase to be paired with spending cuts, depending upon how you ask the question.)

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What is the debt ceiling?
It’s a restriction Congress has put on how much money the federal government can borrow to pay its bills, which has been in place since 1917. Because the government usually spends more than it takes in, Congress needs to raise the debt ceiling fairly frequently to pay for its operations (sort of like a credit card bill).
What is a default?
If Congress doesn’t raise the debt ceiling, the government can’t borrow and might not be able to pay its bills (like bond interest) on time. That’s called a default, and it’s never happened before on this scale (though the U.S. got close in 2011). It would probably tip the U.S. into a recession and shake the global economy.
Why does the U.S. keep raising the debt limit?
Congress needs to raise the debt ceiling so the U.S. can keep issuing bonds, which investors around the world buy because they’re seen as a safe and reliable investment. In turn, the government can fund projects from the military to social programs.
Why is raising the debt limit a fight?
Until recently, it was routine for Congress to raise the debt ceiling. Since 1960, Congress has intervened 78 times to change it in some way. But it has become a political battle because it is one of the few must-pass bills, so lately Republicans have seen it as an opportunity to make demands.


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Even by trying to come toward the middle, Biden has given away plenty — with repercussions for now and the future. Assuming there is some kind of compromise, Republicans will have gotten at least something out of two of the last three major debt ceiling debates. (In 2011, it was the sequester. In 2013, Republicans threw in the towel.) Layer that on top of the sequester-esque concessions Ronald Reagan made in the 1980s, and you begin to see how this could become the new normal.

Past debt ceiling debates carved up federal spending and derailed a presidency

But sometimes the leverage is just too much, as the Reagan example shows. Ronald Reagan had taken a firm stance against messing with the debt ceiling. (He recounted in his diary after 1983 talks with Senate Republicans, “I sounded off & told them I’d veto every d--n thing they sent down unless they gave us a clean debt ceiling bill. That ended the meeting.”) But in later debates, he relented and signed off on a deal.

“The choice is for the United States to default on its debts for the first time in our 200-year history or to accept a bill that has been cluttered up,” he said in a radio address, adding: “This brinkmanship threatens the holders of government bonds and those who rely on Social Security and veterans benefits.”

“This decision is not easy,” he concluded. “I have no choice but to sign this bill to guarantee the United States government’s credit.”

What to know about the U.S. debt ceiling

The latest: Today, the House is expected to vote on a debt ceiling deal as lawmakers rush to avert a disastrous government default on June 5. If the debt ceiling isn’t raised by the deadline, here’s what a government default means and the payments at risk. Here are the negotiators who have been working toward a debt ceiling deal.

Understanding the debt ceiling fight: Biden and the House Republican leadership have been on a collision course over the national debt limit. In this comic, see how hitting the debt ceiling could unleash chaos. Here’s when the debt ceiling battle could end.

What is at stake? Invoking the 14th Amendment to dodge the debt limit is risky, White House officials say. If the debt limit is breached, Biden warned that it could send the U.S. economy into a free fall. The debt ceiling breach could wipe out 8 million jobs, a recent analysis found. Amid consumer anxiety over the uncertainty, financial experts warn against making fear-based decisions.