The most distressing outcome of the deficit hysteria gripping Washington may be what Barack Obama has revealed about himself. It was disconcerting to watch the president slip-slide so easily into voicing the fallacious economic arguments of the right. It was shocking when he betrayed core principles of the Democratic Party, portraying himself as high-minded and brave because he defied his loyal constituents. Supporters may hope this rightward shift was only a matter of political tactics, but I think Obama has at last revealed his sincere convictions. If he wins a second term, he will be free to strike a truly rotten “grand bargain” with Republicans—“pragmatic” compromises that will destroy the crown jewels of democratic reform.
The president has done grievous damage to the most vulnerable by trying to fight the GOP on its ground—accepting the premise that deficits and debt should be a national priority. He made the choice more than a year ago to push aside the real problem—the vast loss and suffering generated by a failing economy.
Yet another “I know what’s really in Obama’s heart, and you’re all a bunch of dupes for not realizing he’s really to the right of Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan” screed. There are many problems with Greider’s piece, but maybe the worst is in the last sentence quoted above: no, there isn’t just “the real problem” and then other stuff. The “real problem” is that there are many problems. Yes, the biggest economic (and probably political) problem is jobs. But the debt ceiling is no less real and can not be avoided.
I searched Greider’s article for a few words which I think are key to a balanced discussion of the debt limit. Like, for instance, “limit.” It’s not there. Greider assails Obama for a broader policy, political and rhetorical emphasis on debt reduction. Fine. But that’s not what we’re dealing with this week. There’s a very specific procedural issue: on Tuesday, if Congress doesn’t act to amend an existing statute and raise the debt limit, the United States government will lose its unquestioned authority to borrow money to cover expenditures already approved by Congress. This isn’t a policy debate initiated by Obama, it’s a response to a looming deadline which if not met will result in both an avoidable economic catastrophe and a major constitutional crisis.
Constitutional scholar Ronald Dworkin argues that in the absence of an agreement the 14th amendment gives the president authority to continue to borrow money to prevent default. Some have said that means Obama shouldn’t worry about conceding anything to Congress. This afternoon Arianna Huffington tweeted “Ronald Dworkin: 14th Am. ‘gives the president authority to ignore’ the ‘blackmail’ currently going on” with a link to his article. What she didn’t bother to add was that Dworkin also wrote that “some Republicans have declared that if the President does accept the constitutional argument, and acts without their consent, they will try to impeach him. That would take only a majority of the House, which the Republicans control.” That is certainly correct. But when Dworkin continues by saying “surely even the Tea Party representatives can understand that they would make fools of themselves by declaring that a president is guilty of ‘a high crime or misdemeanor’ whenever he interprets the Constitution in a way they believe wrong,” he’s being too sanguine.
Greider’s article is missing several other key words, like “senate” and “filibuster” and “tea,” all of which are essential in discussing the real-world dilemma we face. And there’s no discussion of what will happen if the debt limit isn’t raised.
It’s reasonable to criticize Obama’s rhetoric about debt and government spending, his willingness to discuss major changes to Social Security and Medicare, even whether he’s sufficiently used the bully pulpit to educate the public and rally their support. But anyone assailing his positions on the debt limit has an intellectual and political obligation to at least tacitly acknowledge the following:
- Striking a bargin with the Republicans on the debt limit is not an unprovoked initiative that could be dropped, but instead a legal mandate, and that failing to do so will result in some combination of the following:
- The government will not have enough money to meet all it’s financial obligations, so some obligations, most likely social welfare payments like Social Security and Medicare, will not be fully funded
- A severe downgrading of US debt, with serious consequences to the entire US economy and most likely a global financial crisis
- Obama invoking the fourteenth amendment to meet our financial obligations, a position that very well may be overruled by the Supreme Court, and which will also probably trigger a serious effort in the House of Representatives to begin impeachment proceedings, as well as push about 20% of the country in to a conspiracy-soaked paranoid frenzy worse than already exists and probably worse than anything we’ve had since McCarthyism.
- Striking a bargin with the Congressional Republicans will require awful concessions
- Faced with either default or an awful but necessary deal brokered with Republicans, the choices will not good deal or bad deal, they will be very bad deal or even worse deal
- Obama’s rhetoric may not have helped with public understanding and support, but it’s been inconsequential in fostering Republican intransigence, because that’s been there from the first day of his presidency.
- Complaining about a bad deal without acknowledging these constraints or offering an alternative that lays out how to get a better deal through the tea party-controlled House of Representatives and the filibusted Senate is not a serious contribution to a serious discussion.
Criticism if good. Sniping without acknowledging existing political and procedural constraints is not. If you think Obama is mucking things up, or especially if you’re alleging that he’s willfully betraying liberal policies and principles, you have an obligation to provide a credible alternative strategy that lays out how to get a better deal passed through the tea party-controlled House and the filibusted Senate. If you don’t, you’re not making a serious contribution to a serious discussion, and as such there’s no reason to treat you like a serious person.