The One Other Point At Which Obama May Have Been Able to Cut a Debt Deal

This by Kevin Drum should be read in its entirety; he provides a good corrective to the view that presidents have more power than they actually do by looking at George W Bush’s role in the major legislative actions of his presidency. But this part, essentially an incidental comment to his main argument, gets at one of the only reasonable arguments of how President Obama’s may have gotten a better deal on the debt limit, namely by holding out for it during the negotiations last December:

On the specific issue of the debt ceiling, the obvious thing Obama could have done differently was to insist that it be included as part of the lame duck deal last year. But for all the grief he’s gotten over this, it’s worth keeping in mind that Obama got a helluva lot out of that deal. In the end, he got a food safety bill, passage of the START treaty, a stimulus package, repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, and a 9/11 first responders bill. Maybe it would have been worth risking all that over inclusion of a debt ceiling increase, but that’s hardly an open-and-shut case.

That’s a lot, including things (START, 9/11 bill, DADT repeal) that will be hard if not impossible to reverse should Obama not win reelection, as well as the stimulus package, which has helped the economy and while not enough to turn the economy around, it may have been enough, even though most of it will expire this year, to keep it from going so bad as to cost him the him the 2012 election.

Had he wanted to get an increase to the debt limit last December, Obama would probably had to have sacrificed much or all of that package of concessions from the GOP and made it a straight-up exchange of not repealing the Bush tax rates on the wealthy for raising the debt ceiling. There are reasonable arguments that it would have been worth not getting the other concessions from the GOP in order to prevent the hostage-taking on the debt limit. But I think it’s unrealistic to think Obama could have gotten both the package he got last December as well as the extension of the debt limit that took effect prior to the deadline date. Maybe he could have done as he did and get the December deal and then get a better debt deal at some point after people stopped getting their entire Social Security checks, but the cost of those debt limit concessions would probably have been dire economic problems and a likely constitutional crisis and possibly even default.

I personally don’t think it would have been worth giving up what Obama got from the Republicans last December for the debt agreement we got now, with the cuts back-loaded and a possibility of significant changes before the 98% of the cuts that happen after 2012 start to take effect. But it’s probably worth pointing out that there was one other point where Obama may have been able to cut a deal, as well as making clear the likely costs of cutting that deal last December instead of now.

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