President Obama Should But Won't Raise the Debt Ceiling Unilaterally

Michael Tomasky asks why President Obama won’t raise the debt ceiling unilaterally.

At this desperate hour, Barack Obama surely has to be thinking hard about invoking Section 4 of the 14th Amendment, unilaterally raising the debt ceiling, and getting on with it. With the House Republicans now rejecting a proposal (Harry Reid’s) that is 100 percent cuts and no revenues, there can be little question in the minds of most non-Kool-Aid-swilling Americans about the identity of the unreasonable party. Indeed it could be argued that acting unilaterally now is the only responsible move. Bill Clinton, well-versed in dealing with Republican implacability, told Joe Conason’s National Memo that he would pursue this course. And yet one senses the president is highly reluctant to do it. Why?

Three explanations strike me as plausible, although none of them is particularly defensible at this point, with public opinion now clearly persuaded that this really is a crisis and that politicians should compromise to address it. That is to say: the president has a majority on his side now. If there is no deal by close of business Friday or sometime Saturday, surely Obama will have to go it alone by the time the Asian markets open on Sunday afternoon East Coast time, and surely a majority will either approve or come along reluctantly once the president makes the case for his actions.

Why wouldn’t he? The first reason would be the straightforward and obvious one that he and his handlers fear the political repercussions. Some Republicans, and certainly the right-wing noise machine, will crow for impeachment. Obama and his White House are not exactly a group that itches for a fight. They would be dragged perforce into a partisan mud-wrestling match, which Obama has proved time and again he doesn’t want. And there are some legitimate legal questions surrounding the use of the 14th Amendment that could lead to political nightmares down the road, like an adverse decision from the Supreme Court. And after all, as long as the GOP controls the House, the odds would be at least decent that they actually would drum up some phony charges and impeach him, leading to a trial in the Senate.

But in fact, this would in many ways be a gift to Obama. Calls for impeachment would likely perform the nifty trick of getting both left and center on his side, galvanizing his enervated left flank for battle heading toward reelection and persuading independents that the Republican Party needs to start holding its caucus meetings in rubber rooms (what, impeaching a president for ensuring the good credit rating of the United States?).

The second reason Obama probably won’t act alone has more to do with his political philosophy. He apparently really believes—still!—in civic-republican notions of government as an arena for reasoned deliberation. That he could still think this is akin to a child believing in Santa Claus until he’s 15—but apparently he does. The journalist Alec MacGillis captured this conviction well in a profile he did of Obama for the British New Statesman back in 2008. Barack Obama, he wrote, “was running not on a record of past achievement or on a concrete program for the future, but instead on the simple promise of thoughtfulness.”

From this perspective a unilateral action would be almost impious—or at least, if you’d rather aim a little lower than God, anti-Madisonian. Obama would be giving up on his ideal. Of course he should have long since given up on it. I was with him at the beginning—his conviction that politics could be better and more deliberative was one of the things I found appealing about the man. But that ship sailed long ago, and Obama’s position has declined from admirable principle to indefensible fetish. Politics simply isn’t going to get better and more deliberative any time soon.

The third reason the president probably won’t do it is related to the second, but it’s more personal. Unilateral action would be at odds with Obama’s image of himself. In his article, MacGillis defined thoughtfulness Obama style as “the notion that the leadership of the country should be entrusted not on the basis of résumé and platform, but on the prospect of applying to the nation's problems one man's singularly well-tempered intelligence.” This is pretty obviously a dead-on description of Obama’s view of himself and his potential as president.

Again, the idea was once appealing. But Obama badly overestimated his abilities here. The contemporary American right ain’t the Harvard Law Review, where he was once able to get conservatives and critical race theorists to sit in the same room and reason together. Does he still really believe he can do this with today’s Republican Party? He apparently does. It’s hard to figure out why else he would have used Monday night’s speech to continue to argue for a “balanced” approach that was already off the table. He really must have thought Republicans would be inundated by constituent phone calls, come to their senses, and realize that, by golly, they’d better sit down and reason with Mr. Reasonable.

If Obama thinks that, then he is caught up in mere egoism, and he is paradoxically harming the republic he believes he is protecting by behaving so reasonably and responsibly. In that case, reasonably trying to lead good-faith negotiations will have morphed into unreasonably permitting a catastrophe to happen for the sake of holding on to a naive belief. His responsibility now is to the citizens and taxpayers, not to some civic ideals and a self-image that reality has long since mooted.

What seems likeliest to me now is a short-term extension and more of this torture. But that could well still lead to a bond downgrading. Whereas if Obama moved forcefully and said. “I am the president, and I met them here and here and here, and they wouldn’t budge, and I’m finished with them, and now is the time to act,” I have little doubt that the markets—and the people—would react positively. That would prove that he’s a leader, and it would force him to choose sides. It’s high time he did both.