Politics, Policies, and the Debt Ceiling

There’s been a lot of talk on left leaning blogs about how President Obama has moved to the right on the current debt ceiling negotiations. He has asked for more spending cuts than Republicans, along with reforms to Social Security and Medicare, which would, reduce the countries long term deficits. But what is missing in their arguments is the political reality that the White House is facing.

People who have read my past writings know I don’t always agree with the actions Obama has taken. But as both political parties like to say “elections have consequences” and we’re seeing one of them now. Not raising the debt ceiling would be catastrophic for the country. Standard and Poors lowering America’s credit rating would be the last thing America would have to worry about. The stock market would drop more than it did in 2008, and interest rates would be at an all time high. So if you thought banks weren’t lending money now, people wouldn’t be able to take any money because there would be no way they would be able to pay it back.

It’s clear that the Tea Party Republicans are the ones actually in charge of the House of Representatives, and Speaker John Boehner has no influence over them. The numbers simply aren’t there to increase the debt ceiling. But since our constitution says Congress has the power of the purse, Obama needs to find a way to get a majority. Most posts I have read blame the reason on the White House asking for tax increases which Republicans have pledged not to do, but when have Republicans ever wanted to raise taxes? This is nothing new and the left shouldn’t be acting like it is. What the major difference is, is that no matter what the Tea Party will refuse to raise the debt ceiling. They don’t believe the August 2nd deadline is real, even though Eric Cantor does, and believe tax increases will hurt the economy. They are zealots when it comes to these issues and no one is going to be able to change their mind. It forced Obama to make concessions to real Republicans, not Tea Party members but Conservatives, to get them to vote for an increase on the debt ceiling.

Raising the ceiling is a hard vote because the vast majority of people don’t want their elected officials to do it. It is much easier to say, like the Tea Party is doing, that they will not raise it and have a better shot at winning reelection. With the lack of leadership in Congress it makes it a lot easier for this minority to have a bigger voice and come up with small sound bites.

Mitch McConnell, realizing the disaster that would take place if the debt ceiling isn’t raised, was going to allow Obama to raise ceiling on his own, and then have Congress vote whether to veto this action. But this would be a loss for both sides. A vote would still have to be taken forcing all members to be on the record of increasing America’s debt. Republicans show they weren’t able to govern, and Democrats show how little influence they have even though they still control the Senate.

Where Obama screwed up is that he had bad timing. Both sides agree we need entitlement reform, but if done right it can be a progressive issue. When the think tank Third Way came out with a proposal on how to talk about reforming Social Security and Medicare one of their main points was to make it about small adjustments. “Democrats should invert the traditional messaging on entitlement reform, which has tended to emphasize the heroic, major sacrifices being proposed, and thus serves only to make it more politically painful and scary.” By emphasizing tax increases for the rich, and reminding the people currently receiving these benefits this is not about the present but the future of these benefits, it would have been a lot easier for him to make changes to the system. But now that Obama is lumping small changes in these entitlements with raising the debt ceiling, it makes it a big deal and wound up scaring a lot of people. If he really wanted to figure out a way to make sure Social Security and Medicare would be there for future generations, he should have done it earlier.

After Nancy Pelosi convinced the President not to cut much spending, at his press conference today Obama said he would like to see the $2.4 trillion in cuts that were being discussed in the Biden group as part of the debt ceiling deal. The $4 trillion he originally asked for was never mentioned, which is a win for liberals. What is considered big now is making changes to the safety net, as Obama said today “$2.4 trillion without any revenue would cut too many programs that would hurt people” and he’s right. The policies he is proposing aren’t crazy, it’s responsible, and many other Presidents, or Presidents to be, have wanted to do the same thing. It was Senator Truman and his commission who cut programs in the military that were deemed a waste on tax payer money. President Clinton also cut programs in the mid 90’s in order to reduce the deficit and emphasize the programs that worked.

If the Democrats were still in control of Congress the debt ceiling would still be a contentious vote because so much money has been spent. But the arguments would be much different. There wouldn’t be Tea Party Republicans refusing to cooperate. Instead there would be Blue Dog Democrats hoping enough moderates are in favor of the package being voted on so they could vote no. What the Democrats and Blue Dogs have in common is that they wanted to keep the majority while the Republicans want to take it.

Those politics don’t make for good policy when America’s economic structure is on the line. Obama has finally been using the bully pulpit much more recently, as he knows it will benefit him. He did so right before the fundraising quarter ended by holding a press conference, and has done it again three more press conferences in the past eleven days in order to look like the mature one in the room, and it’s worked. His campaign raised a lot of money and polls show Americans like the way he is handling this situation. But he hasn’t come out with a plan on his own that would give his opponents ammunition. What Obama is betting on is that neither side wants to see what will happen August 3rd, and I hope he’s right.

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Filed under Boehner, Congress, debt ceiling, Deficit, Economics, Eric Cantor, President Obama, Third Way

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