Skip to main content

Last week I submitted this piece to the Washington Post articulating the strategy I think President Obama should use in dealing with the problem of the debt-ceiling and the Republicans. In the days since, it has become clear that -- although the President has made many of the same rhetorical points that I recommended -- he will not be taking the approach I proposed.  Overtaken by events, this piece will therefor not be appearing in the Post.

But I'd like to share it here with you anyway. Time will tell how well the President's decision on strategy works out.

Republicans in Congress are once again poised to damage their country with a threat to default on the nation’s debt. It’s time for President Obama to neutralize this threat with one of his own.

First, President Obama could remind Americans of some basic points about the debt ceiling:

• The debt ceiling isn’t about spending. The money has already been spent (by Congress). This is about paying our bills.

• Responsible people –- and responsible nations -— pay their bills.

• The United States benefits from an impeccable record for paying its bills. That’s why the U.S. can borrow at low interest rates.

• If Republicans carried out their threat and made us default on our credit, they would seriously damage America’s financial standing, thereby costing American taxpayers billions of dollars. That irresponsibility could also damage the world economy and plunge us back into recession – adding to the federal deficit, which they claim to care about.

• Last time Republicans used the debt ceiling to extort concessions, the mere threat damaged our economic recovery.

Having given the facts, the President could say:

“Congress has exercised its power on the debt ceiling over eighty times in recent generations, but never until last year had any Congress seriously balked at raising the debt ceiling. The power not to pay our bills, which Republicans in Congress have insisted on keeping, can be exercised only in ways that damage the nation.

“In addition, today’s congressional Republicans can put a president in an impossible situation -- required to pay out money to execute laws duly passed by Congress but forbidden to spend that same money because that would require borrowing beyond the current debt limit. One way or another, the president would be acting illegally.

“There’s something wrong about a power that cannot be used without damaging the nation and that compels the president to act illegally.

“When Republicans threaten to drive the nation into default, unless their demands are met, they compel us to make one of two terrible choices:

“We can give in to blackmail, which we as a nation say should never be done. (The U.S. has always declared that we don’t negotiate with terrorists. And isn’t this political terrorism?)

“Or we can refuse to meet the blackmailers’ demands and wait to see whether the hostage-takers kill the hostage.

“Policy by extortion is not how a healthy democracy operates. A great nation cannot chart a proper course if its political leaders are forced to choose either to give in to blackmail or to expose the nation to the real harm the blackmailer is threatening to inflict.

“This abuse of the debt ceiling process has led thoughtful people to re-examine its legality, and fortunately, a strong case can be made that this whole debt-ceiling arrangement is unconstitutional."

Here the president could summarize an argument articulated by various constitutional authorities: A clause in the 14th Amendment (“The validity of the public debt of the United States, ... shall not be questioned”) can be construed to mean that Congress is forbidden from doing what the Republicans are threatening to do. If the U.S. is constitutionally required to make good on its debt obligations, then Congress cannot, legally, force the nation into default.

Finally, the president could make his counter-threat.

“I have said that I will not negotiate about the debt ceiling. I will not allow the debt ceiling issue to be used to extort concessions that could not be won by legitimate political means. Let me now underscore my determination not to allow such blackmail to become a plague on our political system.

“I declare that if Congress fails to raise the debt ceiling to pay for bills already incurred, I will declare Congress’ claimed debt ceiling powers to be unconstitutional and will simply pay the bills, as the 14th Amendment arguably requires that I do.

“I do not welcome a constitutional clash. Because Congress had always acted responsibly, the current arrangement –- whether constitutional or not —- has worked, and there’s been no reason to challenge it. But a new and destructive practice has been inaugurated by congressional Republicans. It is my responsibility to use every constitutional power available to me to protect the nation.

“Congress can raise the debt limit, or I will act. If the Republicans want to take the matter to the Supreme Court, I will be glad for the opportunity to argue that the Constitution does not give Congress the power to destroy the good faith and credit of the United States but rather gives me the power to protect it.”

The advantages of this strategy for President Obama -- making this counter-threat rather than either acquiescing to the status quo or taking unilateral action —- are two-fold. It would make the Republicans the ones responsible for precipitating a constitutional showdown, should there be one. And it would focus Americans’ attention on the destructive nature of the power the Republicans are claiming and threatening to exercise.

President Obama has a winning hand. America needs him to play it.

--Andy Schmookler, formerly a candidate for Congress in Virginia, is the author of The Parable of the Tribes: The Problem of Power in Social Evolution.

Your Email has been sent.
You must add at least one tag to this diary before publishing it.

Add keywords that describe this diary. Separate multiple keywords with commas.
Tagging tips - Search For Tags - Browse For Tags


More Tagging tips:

A tag is a way to search for this diary. If someone is searching for "Barack Obama," is this a diary they'd be trying to find?

Use a person's full name, without any title. Senator Obama may become President Obama, and Michelle Obama might run for office.

If your diary covers an election or elected official, use election tags, which are generally the state abbreviation followed by the office. CA-01 is the first district House seat. CA-Sen covers both senate races. NY-GOV covers the New York governor's race.

Tags do not compound: that is, "education reform" is a completely different tag from "education". A tag like "reform" alone is probably not meaningful.

Consider if one or more of these tags fits your diary: Civil Rights, Community, Congress, Culture, Economy, Education, Elections, Energy, Environment, Health Care, International, Labor, Law, Media, Meta, National Security, Science, Transportation, or White House. If your diary is specific to a state, consider adding the state (California, Texas, etc). Keep in mind, though, that there are many wonderful and important diaries that don't fit in any of these tags. Don't worry if yours doesn't.

You can add a private note to this diary when hotlisting it:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from your hotlist?
Are you sure you want to remove your recommendation? You can only recommend a diary once, so you will not be able to re-recommend it afterwards.
Rescue this diary, and add a note:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from Rescue?
Choose where to republish this diary. The diary will be added to the queue for that group. Publish it from the queue to make it appear.

You must be a member of a group to use this feature.

Add a quick update to your diary without changing the diary itself:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary?
(The diary will be removed from the site and returned to your drafts for further editing.)
(The diary will be removed.)
Are you sure you want to save these changes to the published diary?

Comment Preferences

  •  He's already won on the debt ceiling. (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    newinfluence, Gary Norton, Valley Guy, FG

    Even Krugman admitted he underestimated Obama's wisdom in canning platinum coins and 14th Amendment remedies.   The ball remains in the Republican's court:  raise it or pay the price.  

    Here's the thing too many people don't understand.  Talking tough tends to be a mask for weakness.  All the threats from the Cantors and Boehners are empty.  Obama just says it's not negotiable, get it done, no gimmicks, and the hot air disperses.  

    Some of us saw this coming last time out- tie them in knots, agree with their bizarre solutions, watch them try to fix the mess they made, and make it their problem every step of the way.  

    When David Brooks and Charles Krathammer are begging for mercy, you know the endgame is playing out exactly as Obama positioned it.  Amazing this isn't all over the site.

    I'm not looking for a love that will lift me up and carry me away. A love that will stroll alongside and make a few amusing comments will suffice.

    by I love OCD on Sat Jan 19, 2013 at 08:41:12 AM PST

  •  Nope. Bad idea. He has won and will continue (0+ / 0-)

    to take this position for the reasons discussed here.

    Further, affiant sayeth not.

    by Gary Norton on Sat Jan 19, 2013 at 08:55:22 AM PST

  •  I'm sorry, but I really don't see it the same way (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    I think he handled the politics and substance of this situation far-better than anyone could see as it was being rolled out, and far-better than you're giving him credit for. He did some of what you suggested above already, but I'll focus specifically on where you differ.

    The response if he had gone the way you suggest can really be broken down into three areas: the media, the government, and the public. No matter how many times President Obama could say "I do not welcome a Constitutional clash", the narrative that would start on the Fox News Channels of the world would be that that is exactly what he wanted, and that he was overstepping the bounds of Constitutionality. It would quickly spread to more reasonable outlets. We would hear from "objective" sources like the corporate networks what the Republican view of his action was, not only as an equally-valid viewpoint, but it would be the louder one.

    Governmentally, the House would get what they really wanted out of the standoff, which was a chance to score political points at the Democrats' expense. They want to cause a confrontation but have no responsibility to defuse the situation. That would likely further provoke the GOP to act in a confrontational manner; they came to Washington to demonstrate, not legislate. Would he win a Court challenge? By the merits, probably. But with this Court, the merits don't always mean anything-- even C.J. Roberts' decision on the ACA took a novel approach in barely upholding it while finding a way to limit the Commerce Clause's power. Just like with the coin idea, its not clear that the Fed would act as a cooperative partner if he exercised 14th Amendment power.

    The public would likely respond similarly to how they did during the healthcare debate. It doesn't matter who is really at fault to low information voters as much as what they feel. The narrative of the Right over the past 4 years is that Obama doesn't respect the legislative process or the Constitution. Taking this kind of action -- no matter how right he is -- reinforces that narrative to those who don't pay close attention.

    Instead, he told the story clearly. He took every last novel maneuver and laid it on the table. He gave the responsibility for any fallout to the GOP, and laid the groundwork for mounting a legal challenge rather than playing into the Republicans' hand. He walks away -- and we all come away -- stronger because he simply didn't play their game.

    No, you can't fix stupid. You OUTNUMBER stupid. -Wildthumb, 1/10/2013

    by newinfluence on Sat Jan 19, 2013 at 09:25:56 AM PST

  •  The real question is going to be in Obama's budget (0+ / 0-)

    due out next month. Prior to that, there have been IIRC about $2.5 trillion in various spending cuts, and the amount the chatterers have been lookinig for as the right number sort of on the right is $4 trillion, simpson Bowles and all that. If that budget gets a long way toward the additional $1.5 trillion, then the Rs have the problem of watching their argument as presently cast melt away, and they will have to retool it again.

    It will also weaken their argument just by sitting on the table, no matter what it says, that the Dems have refused since 2009 to produce. . . .a budget.  What Congress does with that budget is not on O at all, at least not exactly.

    Part of their curse is IIRC the sequester will get us that far along as well, at which point the issue down to sculpting which sequester cuts get adjusted and which remain and who gets to fill in the blanks. That one is, if nothing else, definitely not a gummint shutdown sort of problem.

    Another one where, mystically, O perhaps need do nothing at all and still produce the $4 trillion in cuts, at which point the argument becomes precisely which factions get some of the excess cutting between the budget and the sequester, back for theirs, a classical pork fight of the kind Americans really hate to watch.

    Wanna bet some of this budget maneuvering gets magically lost in gun rights and abortion and immigration fights, the last refuge of fiscal tea baggers when they have been outmaneuvered.

Subscribe or Donate to support Daily Kos.

Click here for the mobile view of the site