Obama and Republicans on the Debt: Caught in a Family Squabble
Obama tries to act as a grownup. But adults get blamed when the kids act foolishly, says Michael Tomasky.
I’m depleted to the point of rage at hearing the phrase “adult in the room,” the chief talking point of those brilliant conjurers who are charged with protecting the president’s image. You’ve heard it now a hundred times if you’ve heard it once. This, as I wrote two weeks ago, is what Barack Obama and his people want more than anything else—for him to be seen as reasonable. Has to impress those independents, don’t you know. But maybe the White House ought to have thought that metaphor through: Adults in the room don’t come off very well if none of the children are listening to them. In addition to that, when things go bad, it’s the adult who gets the blame.
The idea that emerged Sunday night is that the Democrats have now caved on the single point that Obama said was most important to him. Harry Reid is structuring a plan that includes no new revenues. From a policy point of view, it’s a monstrosity. There is no way to get the deficit to the levels Washington wants without revenues. Or actually, there is a way—decimating entitlement programs. The Republicans of course know this, and it’s what is coming next, whether it’s this year or three years from now. It’s a disgrace, made all the more so because deficit hysteria is misplaced to begin with—the deficit is a problem, but it’s a long-term one, not a short-term one, and a strong economy (which means creating jobs) will solve a lot of it.
And politically, it’s hard to assess this as anything but a disaster for Obama. He has said repeatedly and very publicly lately that a deal with some revenues is his bottom line. Now it’s clear that he’s going to accept a deal—if there’s even one to accept at all, and that’s still a large and looming if—that has zero revenues.
What sort of adult lets the kids beat him on his bottom-line condition? Not one you’d hire as a babysitter.
And on that question of whether he’ll accept a deal or not: This is still very much up in the air. Reid’s $2.5 trillion to $2.7 trillion package gets to that number with $1 trillion in savings based on ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Republicans—you know, the same people who financed the wars off the books to begin with—are going to jump on that as phony or unpatriotic or both. There’s a chance that 40 or 50 House Republicans would hold their nose and go along with this anyway and get the thing through the House, but it’s only a chance and far from being something we can (as it were) bank on—especially with John Boehner putting forward his own proposal today and the two sides at loggerheads over the question of whether the increase should be short-term or long-term.
The president’s defenders and some neutral analysts have made much of the fact that Obama is winning the short-term public-relations battle, according to polls. He has succeeded in turning public opinion more or less in favor of raising the limit, and to most fair-minded people, Republicans look like the dogmatic assassins that they are. All well and good.
But if David Plouffe and the rest of the president’s men think that his reputation and standing will survive a failure to reach a deal, I suspect events will demonstrate otherwise. An economic collapse will stick to him as well as the GOP, and over the longer haul will stick to him more: There’s only one president, after all. Wouldn’t you like to be Mitt Romney or (gulp) Michele Bachmann running next year against the only president in our history who ever presided over a national default?
I’d even say Obama’s standing won’t quite survive a deal that is 90 to 95 percent of what the GOP wants. People may not know the details but they can tell when someone’s been kicked around. Again, what sort of adult in the room lets the kids get 95 percent of what they want while imposing no conditions on them?
Here, for example, is something that actual adults in the room do. They say at the outset: This is not a negotiation; this is a hostage situation. The House and Senate have voted 11 times since 1997 to raise the limit. Every time, they’ve groused, especially members from the party out of power; some people vote against it, as Obama himself mistakenly did once, but even then, the vote has been symbolic, with the winking understanding that it will pass; and onerous conditions like these are never attached to such votes. So this is unprecedented and illegitimate. If Obama’s as good at swaying public opinion as the conjurers say he is, he would have swayed it on the debt ceiling back in May.
Adults do more than reason. Adults run things. And they recognize reason’s limitations. Make no mistake: the Republicans are the ones who are driving this car off the cliff. But it’s the adult in the room who handed them the keys.