Via his press conference on Monday, President Obama has now at least tried to educate the people (journalists don’t help much, though) as to just how damaging a failure to raise the debt ceiling would be (“the consequences of us not paying our bills…would be disastrous“).
He has also tried to educate the people (again, with little help from journalists) as to what the debt ceiling actually is: paying for spending already authorized (“These are bills that have already been racked up and we need to pay them“).
The President also laid out the two choices that Republicans are offering him, neither of which he says he will accept:
And so what we’re not going to do is put ourselves in a position where in order to pay for spending that we’ve already incurred, that our two options are we’re either going to profoundly hurt the economy and hurt middle-class families and hurt seniors and hurt kids who are trying to go to college, or, alternatively, we’re going to blow up the economy. We’re not going to do that.
Ain’t gonna happen, he said. Rather than those two damaging options, President Obama spells out the two options Republicans really have:
So we’ve got to pay our bills. And Republicans in Congress have two choices here: They can act responsibly, and pay America’s bills; or they can act irresponsibly, and put America through another economic crisis. But they will not collect a ransom in exchange for not crashing the American economy. The financial well-being of the American people is not leverage to be used. The full faith and credit of the United States of America is not a bargaining chip.
And they better choose quickly, because time is running short.
There you have it. They can act responsibly or irresponsibly. It’s their choice. And the President says he will not be a party to their recklessness, should they choose that route.
Which is exactly why Republican leadership, despite their rhetoric now, will find a way to pivot away from this disastrous debt-ceiling talk and on to a fight over the upcoming budget resolution.
They realize that the President is willing to give them the rope to electorally hang themselves, and most of them don’t even want to feel the noose around their necks, let alone hang up there for all to see, their political bodies swinging in the wind of public disgust.
Finally, if you read the transcript of that press conference, you will see that President Obama didn’t exactly rule out any unilateral executive action to raise the debt ceiling, should Republicans refuse to do so. He was pressed on this issue and, while it sounded like he wouldn’t go down that road, he left himself enough room to do so to avoid what he called “disastrous consequences” or, as he quoted John Boehner, “a financial disaster, not only for us, but for the worldwide economy.”
And really, given such stakes, what else could he do?
Here are a few clues from his presser as to why he just might take action on his own (emphasis mine):
So to even entertain the idea of this happening — of the United States of America not paying its bills — is irresponsible. It’s absurd.
…there are no magic tricks here. There are no loopholes. There are no easy outs. This is a matter of Congress authorizes spending. They order me to spend…They lay all this out for me because they have the spending power. And so I am required by law to go ahead and pay these bills.
Separately, they also have to authorize the raising of the debt ceiling in order to make sure that those bills are paid. And so, what Congress can’t do is tell me to spend X, and then say, but we’re not going to give you the authority to go ahead and pay the bills.
You do not go out to dinner and then eat all you want, and then leave without paying the check. And if you do, you are breaking the law.
And the notion that Republicans in the House, or maybe some Republicans in the Senate, would suggest that “in order for us to get our way on our spending priorities, that we would risk the full faith and credit of the United States” — that I think is not what the Founders intended. That’s not how I think most Americans think our democracy should work.
What I will not do is to have that negotiation with a gun at the head of the American people — the threat that “unless we get our way, unless you gut Medicare or Medicaid, or otherwise slash things that the American people don’t believe should be slashed, that we’re going to threaten to wreck the entire economy.” That is not how historically this has been done. That’s not how we’re going to do it this time.
Obviously, President Obama cannot come out and say directly that he will not, as America’s chief executive, let the country default on its obligations. If he did so, it would empower Republicans to not raise the debt ceiling and then blame him for the unilateral action (some on the right have already suggested impeachment, should he do so).
So he has to play this part of this very stupid game with his cards close to his chest.