Striking Back

Michael Tomasky on Obama’s Republican Revenge Over the Debt Limit

How Obama intends to use the debt limit fight to push back against the pols who humiliated him in 2011.

Like all of you, I have no idea how this fiscal cliff (I know, I know, I’m not supposed to call it that!) business is going to work out. I dearly want to see President Obama win on the 39.6 percent rate for upper incomes. But there may be one thing I’d like even more: for him to win the fight over raising the debt ceiling. There are more important issues facing the nation, I’ll grant you. But nothing, and I mean nothing, symbolizes how extreme, arrogant, oblivious to precedent and reason the Republican Party has become than the position Republicans took on the debt ceiling last year. It’s made worse by the fact that they made a then-weak Obama eat dirt. He seems to know this, and I hope to high heaven he seeks and secures his revenge.

The most interesting wrinkle in the package of proposals announced by Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner on Thursday was the call for Congress to relinquish all authority over the debt limit. Of course this is not going to happen. The power of that debt-ceiling vote is the only leverage Capitol Hill Republicans have right now. They know this, and they certainly plan to use it to try to extract from the administration promises that it will agree to domestic spending or entitlement cuts in like proportion to the amount by which the limit is raised.

But Geithner and Obama, obviously, also know that the debt vote is the only leverage the GOP has, and therefore, they want to make it an issue now and get people to start thinking about it. It’s not yet clear the exact date by which a vote to raise the limit would have to take place—mid-February, maybe, at the very latest. But it’s close enough to the Jan. 1 tax and spending deadlines that the Republicans can surely threaten that they’ll be willing to take the country into default if the administration doesn’t go along on deep spending cuts.

Here’s what I think is at stake here for Obama, and it’s pretty huge. He might well get his tax increase. A huge win. If there is a larger deal, chances seem good that it will be more on his terms than the GOP’s. If there is not a deal, it doesn’t seem to me that it should be so hard to persuade a majority that it was the Republicans’ fault, because the people know now that the Republicans are obstructionist and hostile. So Obama comes out all right either way. Then, soon thereafter, Congress doesn’t increase the debt ceiling, and the bonds are downgraded and veterans don’t get their checks. If that nightmare scenario happens, there’s a good chance that blame shifts to the president, because seniors and veterans kind of expect the president to be looking after their benefits.

What leverage does Obama have against that Republican leverage, and what can he do? Three things. First, what he’s doing—getting out of Washington and barnstorming instead of sitting in Washington negotiating. The worst thing he did by far in last year’s debt talks was that he let the Republicans explain to the American people what the debt ceiling was and what they were doing about it. Now at least he’s trying to educate the public as to the GOP’s unprecedented (except by them, last year) behavior.

Second, Obama could pick up on the idea bruited last year by (of all people) Mitch McConnell. As the debt talks were lurching into the eleventh hour, McConnell proposed a way out of the problem. It’s very procedurally complicated. You can read a very nice summary here. In essence, it changes Congress’s role on raising the debt limit from an active one to a passive one—the debt limit would be raised automatically unless Congress specifically acted to block it. Obama would have to propose a spending cut of one dollar for every dollar the ceiling is raised. But—and here’s the catch that Obama could exploit—the increase to the debt limit and the spending cuts would be considered separately. So Obama could promise $900 billion in cuts, but the Democratic Senate could agree to only $300 billion. Or whatever. Dirty pool? Hardly. It would serve these charlatans right—the debt ceiling shouldn’t be tied to any other demands anyway, and it never had been in our history until last year by the GOP.

Finally, there’s the tantalizing “constitutional option”—invoking certain provisions with the Fourteenth Amendment to declare (yes, simply to declare) that Congress has no rightful role in setting the debt ceiling anyway, raise it unilaterally, and make the courts stop him. Many observers urged this route last year, chiefly Bill Clinton among them. Obama didn’t have the stones then. He didn’t even dangle it as a possibility just to make the other guys, think. Remember? He took it off the table unilaterally.

Well, it sure looks like this year’s model is a different and tougher Obama. The debt debacle of 2011 was far and away the nadir of his first term. It’s true the Republicans in Congress lost ground in the polls also, but Obama lost more. He was just humiliated by them. For his sake, and for the sake of future Democratic presidents, who’ll have guns held to their heads too by extremist Republican Congresses, he needs to reverse that, and reverse it now—he can’t spend another four years as a hostage.