“Call me naive,” President Obama invited viewers of today’s press conference.
Mr. President, invitation accepted: Unless that performance today conceals some unimagined occult plan, yes, you are naive.
Congressional Republicans have refused to raise the debt limit unless the Obama Administration agrees to large and immediate spending cuts. They have their finger on the nuclear button and are threatening to detonate unless they get their way. It seems crazy that they would actually do it, but congressional Republicans have done a pretty good job of convincing the Administration (if not yet the financial markets) that they just might do it.
Obama has responded by entering into negotiations with the congressional Republicans. These negotiations have not gone well, largely because Republicans are united upon an all-spending-cuts, no-tax-increases approach to deficit reduction.
So what does Obama have to say to that? At his press conference:
Mr. Obama repeatedly mocked tax breaks that he said were for “millionaires and billionaires, oil companies and corporate jet owners,” saying that voters would not look kindly on Republican lawmakers who defended such breaks at the cost of cuts in popular programs like health care, education and food safety.
But he did not explicitly say that he would reject a deal that did not eliminate such breaks, saying that he believed his adversaries would eventually agree to what Democrats have called a “balanced approach” that included trillions of dollars in spending cuts along with tax increases.
“If you are a wealthy C.E.O. or hedge fund manager in America right now, your taxes are lower than they have ever been. They are lower than they have been since the 1950s. And they can afford it,” Mr. Obama said. “You can still ride on your corporate jet. You’re just going to have to pay a little more.”
How lame is this answer?
Let’s count the ways.
1) The stuff about corporate jets is just … crapola really. It’s the Democratic equivalent of Republicans pretending that the deficit can be closed by cutting PBS and the National Endowment for the Arts. If Obama, the supposed grownup in the room, wants to make the case for revenue measures, let him make the case for relevant revenue measures.
2) 30 or so days before a forced default on the financial obligations of the United States seems a poor choice of a time for negotiations over budget measures. Why is Obama allowing himself to be engaged in this way?
3) Why for that matter is Obama surrendering to the demand to change the subject from jobs to deficits? Surely Obama believes that rapid budget-cutting will be deflationary? And therefore irresponsible in the context of 10% unemployment, near-zero inflation, and 1% interest rates on federal debt? Why has he allowed himself to be pushed into measures he regards as irresponsible?
4) Beyond that why isn’t he yelling his head off about the Republican default threat? Why isn’t he being specific about what it could mean? And why isn’t he doing what Lyndon Johnson would do – making it clear that if H-Hour does arrive, he’ll use disbursement power just as politically as Republicans are using the power of the debt ceiling: eg, paying Medicaid bills from Blue states first, Red states later? Paying farmers and other Republican constituencies with IOUs, while hoarding cash for Democratic voters?
5) For that matter, why isn’t he hammering home the point that Bruce Bartlett makes in this column.
The Constitution itself emphatically states that the public debt of the United States “shall not be questioned.” Yet these so-called conservative constitutionalists are doing precisely that , calling that public debt into question by refusing to vote the federal government the instrumentalities to pay its obligations.
On this issue, Obama has passed the point where he looks reasonable. He looks too weak to do the job of the presidency. And we are all left to wonder if he looks weak because he is weak.