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Obama seeks to flip script on debt debate

U.S. president argues nation must raise limit to pay its bills

The Washington Post

ANALYSIS

The debt ceiling debate began in earnest Monday with President Barack Obama drawing a line in the sand at a White House press conference.

And as with the last major budget debate, Obama is attempting to do more than merely win the debate — he is first trying to change the terms of it altogether.

Rather than argue over whether the debt ceiling should be raised to authorize more borrowing, Obama is instead arguing that Congress is voting simply to pay the bills that it has already racked up — a semantic difference, perhaps, but a very important one at the same time.

In effect, Obama is trying to shift the burden of failure to the GOP in much the same way he did during the “fiscal cliff” debate.

When the Bush tax cuts came up for renewal two years ago, Obama and the Democrats lost the battle and all of the tax cuts were renewed for two years. The problem at the time was that Democrats were perceived as the ones holding up the renewal of the tax cuts because they insisted on letting them expire for the wealthiest Americans.

When the tax cuts came up for renewal again during the fiscal cliff, though, Obama flipped the script. Rather than allow Democrats to be labeled tax-raisers, he painted Republicans as holding up the tax cuts for 98 percent of Americans in the name of also renewing them for the wealthiest 2 percent.

Thanks to the bully pulpit and the GOP’s lack of cohesion, that framing eventually took hold, with Republicans acknowledging that Obama had the upper hand in a negotiation that he had lost just two years earlier.

“Some people think that’s our leverage in the debate; it’s the Democrats’ leverage in the debate,” said Oklahoma Republican Rep. Tom Cole, who was among the first from his party to urge them to allow the tax cuts for the wealthy to expire.

Obama is attempting essentially the same trick with the debt ceiling.

While many people understand the debt ceiling as raising Congress’ authority to borrow money, Obama is trying to reframe it as merely allowing the Treasury to pay the bills Congress has accumulated.

“I want to be clear about this: The debt ceiling is not a question of authorizing more spending,” Obama said. “Raising the debt ceiling does not authorize more spending. It simply allows the country to pay for spending that Congress has already committed to.”

Obama made that argument repeatedly Monday, and it was clearly a point of emphasis:

“There’s one way to deal with it, and that is for Congress to authorize me to pay for those items of spending that they have already authorized.”

“You don’t go out to dinner and then, you know, eat all you want and then leave without paying the check. And if you do, you’re breaking the law. And Congress is — should think about it the same way that the American people do.”

“But you don’t — you don’t say, in order for me to control my appetite, I’m going to not pay the people who already provided me services, people who already lent me the money.”

And he said twice, “We are not a deadbeat nation.”

“If congressional Republicans refuse to pay America’s bills on time, Social Security checks and veterans’ benefits will be delayed. We might not be able to pay our troops,” Obama said, ratcheting up the rhetoric over the looming deadline to raise the $16.4 trillion debt ceiling.

“Investors around the world will ask if the United States is, in fact, a safe bet. Markets could go haywire,” he said.

“It would be a self-inflicted wound on the economy. It would slow down our growth, might tip us into recession. And ironically it would probably increase our deficit,” he said. “To even entertain this happening — of the United States of America not paying its bills — is irresponsible. It’s absurd.”

He vowed that congressional Republicans “will not collect a ransom in exchange for not crashing the American economy. The financial well-being of the American people is not leverage to be used. The full faith and credit of the United States of America is not a bargaining chip.”

This, really, is the debate before the debate. And it might be the most important part of this whole process.

Republicans have labeled Obama as a “big spender” with considerable success, but he is now trying to argue that it’s actually Congress that has racked up that debt, and now it’s time to pay the piper.

Republicans, not surprisingly, disagree with this framing of the debate, but it might be hard for them to win. After all, the Constitution makes clear that Congress has the authority to spend and borrow money, not the president.

Obama said he is happy to talk to Republicans about ways to reduce the deficit. “What I will not do,” he said, “is to have that negotiation with a gun at the head of the American people — the threat that unless we get our way, unless you gut Medicare or Medicaid, or, you know, otherwise slash things that the American people don’t believe should be slashed, that we’re going to threaten to wreck the entire economy. That is not how historically this has been done. That’s not how we’re going to do it this time.”

Less than a week before Obama is inaugurated for a second term, the comments set up a collision course with Republicans, who insist that the debt-ceiling debate offers a crucial source of leverage to force spending cuts. Without a resolution, the U.S. and global economies face serious risks.

“The president and his allies need to get serious about spending, and the debt-limit debate is the perfect time for it,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said in response to Obama’s remarks. “I do know that the most important issue confronting the future of our country is our deficit and debt.”

The question now is whether people believe that the money is already spent and the bills are already racked up. Republicans can argue that spending cuts would make it so those same bills could be paid off without raising the debt ceiling.

It will be incumbent on the GOP to come up with a focused and articulate response to Obama’s new framing of the debate. Because as the fiscal cliff showed, if they can’t win the semantic battle, they’ll have a tough time winning the larger battle.