As the tortuous debt ceiling debate continues, with plot twists that even the most diehard political junkies are having a hard time keeping straight, one aspect continues to bedevil the process: the staunch refusal of both President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to accept a short-term deal.
Here at least it seems that both parties could come to an agreement not to torpedo the economy with a government shutdown and market turmoil and instead give everyone time to either work out a compromise or take their case to the electorate. Yet while the Republican leadership appears willing to shelve their ideological crusade for a few months in the interest of maintaining some level of public order, leading Democrats appear much less amenable to a pragmatic short-term deal.
In his speech Monday night, President Obama explained why he was opposed to the most recent Republican plan for a six-month extension of the debt ceiling: “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.”
What this amounts to is saying that because a short-term deal will only delay the debate, it is unacceptable. But isn’t the risk of the massive cuts in spending that will be necessary after August 2 even greater? If Obama in his role as president is bound to protect the security – including economic security – of the U.S., doesn’t that demand a solution now even if it prolongs an ugly and problematic debate over future spending, taxing and cutting?
The problem is that Obama (and Senate Democrats) are acting as politicians with an eye to next year’s elections. So, too, are the Republicans of course, and Speaker John Boehner could force a deal with a few dozen non-Tea Party Republicans and most Democrats anytime he wanted to – except that might cast his leadership of the House into jeopardy. White House officials are apparently very concerned that pushing this debate into next year will make it a central campaign issue. If the overall economy and job picture doesn’t show improvement by then (which seems likely), then Obama will be hobbled by a destructive continuation of the current debt debate as well as a weak economy, which will make his reelection and that of Senate Democrats much more complicated.
The issue then isn’t really the pragmatism or viability of a short-term deal: it’s the prospect of next year’s election. Obama actually called the political system “dysfunctional” in his speech. Unfortunately, he is now adding to that dysfunction and in so doing is placing himself as politician ahead of himself as president. He is hardly the first to do so, but Obama won in 2008 because he was seen as different, a statesman rather than a politico. Now he seems to be driven by the political risks of a short-term deal. He may win the political battle, but he is getting closer to losing the halo that has been so key to whatever success he has had.