The Twitter town hall with President Obama actually produced a decent question. Renegade Nerd asked: “Mr. President, will you issue an executive order to raise the debt ceiling pursuant to section 4 of the 14th amendment?”
Obama stuttered a bit, and then gave a history of the debt limit itself, the statutory grant of borrowing authority for the Treasury Department. And then he continued. He acknowledged the debate over the 14th Amendment, and the idea that the President could issue an executive order to demand the public debt be paid and not questioned. But he effectively dodged it. “I don’t think we should even get to the Constitutional issue,” the President said. “I think Congress should be able to get a deal that satisfies all these issues.” Basically, he put it back on Congress to figure out a deal, rather than use this Constitutional option as a preface to get to a deal.
Later, Obama was asked – by Nick Kristof, who really shouldn’t have gotten a question, as he already has a platform – whether it was a mistake to not include the debt limit in the deal on the Bush tax cuts from last November. Here, the President rejects the premise of the question, and says that the Republicans wouldn’t have agreed to such a deal. He didn’t say that he tried to get them to include that, but that he basically had a swap on the Bush tax cuts on the wealthy for some help on the economy, and that’s what he was able to get.
In both cases, the President both declined to answer the question, and found himself disinterested in using his power and leverage in the same way as Republicans. I mean, in a way these are the same question. In both cases, the President was in possession of something – the Bush tax cuts, a plausible way to get out of the debt limit trap – and he chose not to use those things, instead allowing the process to play itself out. He wasn’t willing to threaten to let the entire Bush tax cuts expire at the end of last year, and he’s not willing to threaten to force Treasury to pay the bills.
Now, maybe the Republicans somehow have more leverage than the President does. Maybe they can simply move to the 2012 budget fight if Obama forecloses on the debt limit hostage-taking option, demanding the same deal and shutting down the government, and impeaching the President for perceived violations of the Constitution besides.
But it’s undeniable that the President is disinclined to use actual leverage points to get things from the opposition that one would think he would want. Maybe it’s time to recalibrate the belief in what we think he wants.
UPDATE: Ryan Grim has the full quote:
“I don’t think we should even get to the constitutional issue,” Obama said after outlining the issue. “Congress has a responsibility to make sure we pay our bills. We’ve always paid them in the past. The notion that the U.S. is going to default on its debt is just irresponsible, and my expectation is that over the next week to two weeks that Congress, working with the White House, comes up with a deal that solves our deficit, solves our debt problems and makes sure that our full faith and credit is protected.”
This doesn’t address what happens if – when? – Congress fails in its responsibility.