The President’s speech tonight from the East Room was designed for an audience of non-junkies who haven’t been obsessively following the twists and turns of the debt limit debate. Therefore, for junkies like me who have, not much of it was new. And many of us could hardly understand the point. For over half of the speech, the President discussed his grand bargain plan, ruled dead by the House Republicans. This seemed like a staggering waste of time and effort. But like a New York Review of Books article, it was designed just to bring people up to speed.
The main goal here for the President was to isolate House Republicans as an uncompromising group of extremists who will stop at nothing to harm the ordinary working man in an effort to save the ill-gotten gains of the ultra-rich. But the problem is that this rhetorical flourish is in service to a position that moves us to an era of austerity, a path of major deficit reduction without shared sacrifice, which is likely to strike at the heart of the social safety net created and sustained by Democrats over the past 80 years. There’s just nothing to be excited about here. Barack Obama for the first time in his Presidency asked citizens to do some grassroots organizing, to call their representatives and let them know what they expect from Washington. But he did it by saying, “If you want a balanced approach to reducing the deficit, let your Member of Congress know. If you believe we can solve this problem through compromise, send that message.”
He gives no other option to people – not even either of the two options on the table at this late stage of the debate! It’s just balance and compromise. There’s no ask to “let your Member of Congress know that you want them to raise the debt ceiling, period.” No call to action to “let your Member of Congress know that they should not play games with the full faith and credit of the United States.” This was community organizing for a cause that most of the people Obama wants to organize don’t believe in. Polls show they aren’t interested in real and painful benefit cuts to cherished safety net programs. They aren’t all that interested in slashing domestic spending “to the lowest level it’s been since Dwight Eisenhower was President.” They are interested in jobs, but Obama only used that word twice tonight – both times talking about the loss of jobs that can come from a default event or “growing debt.”
There was a very curious moment when Obama started talking about the debt ceiling. He said:
Now, what makes today’s stalemate so dangerous is that it has been tied to something known as the debt ceiling – a term that most people outside of Washington have probably never heard of before.
Note the passive voice there. The stalemate “has been tied.” Who tied it? House Republicans got the ball rolling, to be sure, but the President abandoned any call for a clean raising of the debt limit a long time ago. Like the House Republicans, he has wanted to tie a long-term deficit reduction plan to the debt limit. He thinks it would be good for the country to “put our fiscal house in order.” He thinks it would show the value of compromise and prove to the world that America can get “big things” done. He seems to believe that it would somehow kick-start our economy to cut trillions of dollars in aggregate demand, by providing confidence to the business community to invest. So the stalemate has not “been tied.” Obama tied it.
And he tied it knowing full well what House Republicans are capable of. Consider this passage:
First of all, a six-month extension of the debt ceiling might not be enough to avoid a credit downgrade and the higher interest rates that all Americans would have to pay as a result. We know what we have to do to reduce our deficits; there’s no point in putting the economy at risk by kicking the can further down the road.
But there’s an even greater danger to this approach. Based on what we’ve seen these past few weeks, we know what to expect six months from now. The House will once again refuse to prevent default unless the rest of us accept their cuts-only approach. Again, they will refuse to ask the wealthiest Americans to give up their tax cuts or deductions. Again, they will demand harsh cuts to programs like Medicare. And once again, the economy will be held captive unless they get their way.
That is no way to run the greatest country on Earth. It is a dangerous game we’ve never played before, and we can’t afford to play it now. Not when the jobs and livelihoods of so many families are at stake. We can’t allow the American people to become collateral damage to Washington’s political warfare.
All of this is something we already knew long before entering this debate. We already knew that the House would rigidly ask for the maximal deal. We knew that they wouldn’t raise taxes. We knew that they would want to cut programs for the poor and the sick. We knew they would take the economy captive. Obama knew it; he’s laying it out right here. He sought a deal with these people anyway. And while some might suggest that he had no other option, that divided government is such that he couldn’t have it any other way, with the temperature rising and pressure on Republicans to avoid the blame for default, there’s no reason that he STILL has to hype his balanced plan. He could ask for a simple increase in the debt limit today. But that’s not his goal.
I don’t have much to say about John Boehner’s speech either. It existed on a plane orthogonal to reality, where Barack Obama wants a “blank check” to spend money we don’t have, and all that rot. I don’t have the CrazyBaseLand-to-English dictionary needed to properly analyze it.
“We all want a government that lives within its means,” Obama said, but it wasn’t but days ago that he said in one of his many press conferences that the American people aren’t concerned with the national debt when they’re out trying to find a job. If Obama is calling on the public to make their voices heard, then they must say this: raise the debt limit and get back to the actual business of investing in this country and creating jobs, so we can grow our way out of the Lesser Depression.