The political aftermath of the debt ceiling

I didn't blog about the debt ceiling becauseâ¦Â ugh. The idea that the Republican party would hold the country, and indeed the world economy, hostage is unimaginably awful. The idea that, in the midst of a recession barely worse than the Great Depression, we're talking about cutting government spending is also absurd. It's a failure of governance and of leadership. Far from being ashamed, Mitch McConnell is gloating about it.

The Left is riled up, and righteously so. The problem is that most of the ire seems to be directed at the President, with talk of a primary challenge and so forth.

This is absurd.

Not that I think the President handled this situation perfectly. I think he was too quick to dismiss the gimmicky options folks dreamed up. Not that I think he should have actually employed them, but I think threatening to skip Congress and raise the debt limit on his own might have gotten people back to the negotiating table. The idea of a couple platinum trillion dollar coins is nonsense, a legal-but-absurd move that would only deepen investor concern about America's monetary future. The same goes for the dubiously legal 14th amendment option (in which the President would simply assert a right to continue selling bonds because "The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, â¦shall not be questioned," an argument undermined by the fact that the debt must be "authorized by law," and also because the administration's lawyers thought it was unconstitutional).

Actually employing either course of action would probably have spooked the markets into the same panic everyone wanted to avoid, but I wish the administration had been smarter about strategically refusing to rule them out, a deterrent for Congress's nuclear option of a forced default on US debt. The President played by Queensbury rules, which let the Republicans mug him, and the country.

But here's the thing: Any other Democratic president would face this. The Republicans are using every procedural lever to stop the President from getting political victories. They want the White House back, and they want to gum up the works until they have it. They don't want the President to get judges on the bench, or to fill up the Federal Reserve, or to get cabinet appointees confirmed. They damn sure don't want effective consumer advocates installed at the newly-created Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

So what's a frustrated Democrat to do? A primary challenge to the President is dumb. If President Obama wins, he's had to waste a bunch of money defending his left flank, and his opponent has spent the year laying the groundwork for subsequent Republican attacks (unless the challenge is very strategic, and exists as a way to let the President get back on the campaign trail and get back into fighting shape for the general election). The Democratic coalition would be even more split and internally divided, the nominee (either one) is weaker, and the Republicans have a better shot. If the President loses, it's worse, because whoever challenges the President will be at an even greater financial disadvantage in the general election, having spent more and burned more bridges. This all sets aside the question of who would even step up for that fight.

But here's the thing: if a different Democrat got elected in 2012, and faced the same Congress, we'd see the same stuff happen. Every bill would get filibustered, the House would hold up any debt limit increases, demanding that Social Security and Medicare be sacrificed for any sort of stimulative spending program (unemployment insurance, for instance) or tax increases that would pay for such programs. If Hillary Clinton had been elected in 2008, she'd face the same nonsense today. Ditto for John Edwards, but of course, he'd be tied up in Clintonesque hearings over his affairs and secret lovechild. And if John McCain had been elected, we'd have had no stimulus, no healthcare bill, no CFPB, no repeal of DADT, no requirement that health insurance fully cover birth control, no investments in green technology, no scientific integrity policy promulgated throughout the federal government, no Lily Ledbetter act to end pay inequities, and none of the dozens of other good and important policies that this President and the Democratic Congress managed to pass before the end of 2010.

So what's an angry Democrat (or moderate Republican) to do? Elect a better Congress. The President can only do so much. The bully pulpit doesn't actually have much effect on the public. President Obama has done many of the things a President can to advance progressive goals (we can quibble here and there, but the main complaints involve stuff Congress did or didn't do â but the more legitimate critique is of his choices of economic braintrust). Kevin Drum (linked above) makes the case, indeed, that the President has been remarkably effective at advancing progressive goals:

On the specific issue of the debt ceiling, the obvious thing Obama could have done differently was to insist that it be included as part of the lame duck deal last year. But for all the grief he's gotten over this, it's worth keeping in mind that Obama got a helluva lot out of that deal. In the end, he got a food safety bill, passage of the START treaty, a stimulus package, repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell, and a 9/11 first responders bill. Maybe it would have been worth risking all that over inclusion of a debt ceiling increase, but that's hardly an open-and-shut case.

What's more, Obama also won passage during his first two years of a stimulus bill, a landmark healthcare bill that Democrats had been trying to pass for the better part of a century, a financial reform bill, and much needed reform of student loans. And more: a firm end to the Bush torture regime, the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, a hate crimes bill, a successful rescue of the American car industry, and resuscitation of the NLRB. Oh, and he killed Osama bin Laden too.

Sure, we all could have wished for more. Everyone has different hot buttons, and I particularly wish that financial reform had been stronger and that Obama had somehow managed to get cap-and-trade across the finish line. I'm also unhappy with the extension of the Afghanistan war and Obama's Bush-like policies regarding national security and civil liberties. Still and all, in two years Obama has done more to enact a liberal agenda than George Bush did for the conservative agenda in eight. That's not bad, folks. All things considered, I'd say Obama is the most effective politician of the Obama era. And the Bush era too.

Do you want a bigger stimulus? The President can't do that without Congress. Want Elizabeth Warren to run CFPB? The President needs a Congress who will confirm her when he nominates her. Want to put a public option back into the healthcare debate? Elect a Congress that will take up that bill and the President will sign it gladly. Want reform of unionbusting laws and policies? So does the President, but good luck getting it through this Congress. Want a bill that will reduce carbon pollution and move us toward a cleaner, safer, and more economically secure future? The President's with you, though didn't fight as hard for that as he probably could have on that bill, but it was wussy Senate Democrats who killed it, and you need a much better Congress before you'll get anything real on that front (and if it had a shot in Congress, you bet the President would have been more involved). Want stronger Wall Street reform, mortgage reform, and another shot at the cramdown debate? This Congress won't do it, but the President is on your side. Want an end to the debt ceiling nonsense, and the obsession with spending cuts to pay for tax cuts for the rich? The President certainly does too, but Congress makes those choices.

So here's my advice. Go to ActBlue, find folks running against the most reactionary assholes in Congress, and fund them. Or fund folks running against folks who aren't quite so bad, but who vote the wrong way and would be easy to beat.

A meaningful primary campaign against a sitting president would probably cost hundreds of millions of dollars, all with a likely effect of no meaningful change. Spend that money on every swing Senate seat and 50 swing House races, and you could flip Congress. Spend it forcing lead teabaggers to defend themselves at home, and you open up space for challengers to go after swing seats. Fund Republican primary opponents to teabaggers, and fund GOP moderates against teabag rivals. Fund Blue Dog Democrats (unless they have a primary challenger who could really win the district).

But don't just spend. Get out and volunteer. If you're pissed at the President and don't want to volunteer for his campaign, I understand and that's fine. But go support a Democrat (or sane Republican) in your neighborhood. Phonebanking and canvassing on that local scale is hugely rewarding, and has higher payoffs than most of what goes on in Presidential races. If you do this, you will change things. Build a local progressive infrastructure, train your friends to canvass for progressive causes, and you'll have something important to work with for years to come, whoever wins the elections in 2012. And every voter you swing will remind wingnuts that their crazy votes and rhetoric have consequences back home.

Enough with the circular firing squads. It's time to move forward. (Troll repellent: That's not to say we shouldn't criticize the President, or that he's the greatest President ever imaginable, or that we shouldn't keep pushing the administration to do the stuff we want them to do. But criticism from people who demonstrate political savvy and sense is likely to be more compelling than rants from people who misunderstand the different powers granted to the executive and legislative branches.)


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I still don't understand why you have a law about debt ceiling. Next time the Reps win the cake, the Dems will use it against them.

I'm not aware of any other country that has one. It's like giving a knife to a child.

By Lassi Hippeläinen (not verified) on 03 Aug 2011 #permalink

despite his reputation as an eloquent orator Obama has made no effort to frame the various debates in a way that inspires progressives, that shames republicans, or that advances anything like the agenda he campaigned on. He doesn't need congressional approval to use his bully pulpit to damn the failure of right wing ideas and economics or to build support for a progressive alternative. He had no reason to build support for a progressive alternative because he never attempted to offer one.

I would welcome and encourage a primary battle against the great conciliator. The reason that republican politicians march in lockstep is they know their supporters will crucify them if they surrender on any of a half a dozen critical issues. Trying to make the case that the left should continue to support Obama despite him governing like a any surrender, even ones made before the battle even begins, can be justified by claiming it was the best deal we could get.

By sarcastico (not verified) on 04 Aug 2011 #permalink

I would welcome and encourage a primary battle against the great conciliator.

In other words, you welcome and encourage electing a Republican as the next President in 2013. Great plan.

Wasn't this the President that had a super-majority in the Senate when he first started but was STILL surrendering to the Republicans in negotiations? How is getting "better" congressman going to help out?

This Debt Deal was a dictatorship push. And now the rating agencies are still threatening to downgrade US debt.
This "super congress" is a coup on the constitution, and represents Obama's controller's push for a dictatorship.
Watch this, and join the fight for Obama's immediate ouster!

By JimmyJonesly (not verified) on 04 Aug 2011 #permalink

Walt's Garage: "Wasn't this the President that had a super-majority in the Senate"

No. Even before the midterms, the Senate did not have a filibuster-proof Democratic majority, in part because of senators like Joe Lieberman and Ben Nelson, who were nominally Democratic but would often vote with the Republicans.

By J. J. Ramsey (not verified) on 04 Aug 2011 #permalink

I'm amused that you write as if Obama had been VP and had only just taken office recently after the death of President Biden and thus wasn't responsible in considerable part for the predicament he found himself in. But Obama took office in January 2009 didn't he.

It was Obama who from the outset indulged his fantasy that Republicans would be reasonable, responsible and cooperative if only he reached out to them. Despite steadily mounting evidence against this, Obama persists in his fantasy. And his fantasy means he cannot effectively campaign against the increasing insanity that is today's Republican Party because it would mean facing the fact his belief in their reasonableness, responsibility and cooperation was wrong. So, Obama pre-emptively gave up the public option and it bought how many Republican votes on HCR? He was pretty much AWOL from the public debate over HCR and didn't use the bully pulpit of the presidency to fight the campaign of lies and demagoguery that fostered the Tea Party.

Having adopted the Bush2 security state across the board and guaranteed nobody would be punished for its regime of rendition and torture, having leftt DADT for later, having bent over backwards for Republicans over HCR, having accepted the smallest possible stimulus (one that couldn't actually stimulate because it was too small to do more than offset state and local cuts), Obama didn't do anything to energize Democrats for the 2010s and thus helped usher the Tea Party into Congress.

Then, to compound his error, he mistook the narrow Republican win in terms of votes in a low turnout election where only one side was energized for a general statement about 'independents' being terrified of the debt and deficit and made a huge strategic blunder of jumping on the D&D bandwagon alongside the Tea Party, positioning himself as the kinder-gentler Tea Party. As if that wasn't enough, when the Republicans hold the country hostage to save the Bush2 tax cuts for the wealthy, Obama agrees to an improvident deal that gives up his leverage for comparatively meagre short-term benefits, in the process giving up his one bit of leverage for the debt ceiling fight. Even at that stage, Obama said Boehner and the Republicans would be responsible (thx to Jon Stewart for digging up that bit of 'wisdom') over the debt ceiling.

To the extent Obama found himself in an impossible situation, it was one largely of his own, at least acquiescence if not outright making.

As to your dismissal of the 14th Amendment argument, well Congress has authorized the spending by law and has authorized inadequate revenue by law, leaving Obama no choice but to either dishonour America's debts or borrow beyond the debt ceiling (a stupid anachronism he could have campaigned against but didn't). He has lawyers who've managed to construe the bombing of Libya as not being 'hostilities' but that's when he wanted to fight in Libya, while Obama has never wanted to actually win any fight over the deficit but merely to position himself as not quite as bad as the Republicans.

Quite the campaign slogan for 2012: 'Hey, it could be worse.'

By Mike from Ottawa (not verified) on 05 Aug 2011 #permalink

You seem to be assuming that if the President had a solid Democratic majority in both houses of Congress, he'd push harder for liberal policies. There's no evidence to back up this assumption, widely shared by Obama supporters. And there are facts to suggest the opposite is true.

For one thing, it was Obama who didn't want a clean debt ceiling bill---McConnell was ready to give him one and Obama turned it down. You suggest he would be willing to push for a bigger stimulus, but he's been saying for two years that the stimulus was just the right size, thank you very much, and we don't need a bigger one.

There are many, many other examples, and they all lead to one conclusion, unless you're in denial: Obama is a conservative. And supporting him in 2012 is just going to give us more conservative Democratic candidates in the future. He has no motive whatsoever to move left (i.e. toward the center) unless we can credibly threaten to withdraw our support.

The Tea Party folks, who are widely described as stupid people, get this. Only liberals need to have it explained.

How did the govt come to control the economy ? By way of the Federal Reserve Act. I was looking thru Mark Levin's Liberty & Tyranny, and also Men in Black, and I see nothing about the FED. This is rather odd because if Paul Volcker has as much power as Carter or Reagan, you might expect to see a constitutional amendment authorizing such power. Ron Paul complains about the Income Tax, but there is an amendment to cover that. He does rightly point a finger at the Federal Reserve. But I would say that not only does it create Socialism for Banks, it even created a kind of PolitBuro - a govt of, by, and for banks, which necessarily operates in secret. William Greider discusses some more constitutionally acceptable alternative approaches on pages 752, 755ff of "Secrets of the Temple: How the Federal Reserve Runs the Country" (1987). His discussion strikes me as making a lot more sense than what Ron Paul advocates in the way of gold coinage. A 'balanced budget amendment' will not fix it, and Greider discusses Greenspan's remarks about returning to gold and the admitted problems with that approach. Frankly America never did deal with these economic problems, and the Federal Reserve was a technocratic answer that has about as much validity as FDR's National Recovery Act. The Supreme Court should have struck it down. Life in America would have taken quite a different course.

By joel rice (not verified) on 06 Aug 2011 #permalink

I will probably end up again voting for Barack Obama, that doesn't him from being the most unskilled and least politically courageous Democratic president since before the Civil War. He is doing a really lousy job of being president, never mind the president he said he would be.

He should fire Geithner, really just about the entire economic and political team. He should replace them with people who are going to tell him that what he learned at Harvard Law and the University of Chicago, and, most of all, his pals from there, is wrong and stupid on even just a political level.

I see no evidence that he's learning anything from repeated punkings by Republicans and neo-liberals in the Senate. He hasn't got the nerve to think out of the confines of the common received wisdom of the DC Villagers.

Anthony McCarthy Leveler:

He should fire Geithner, really just about the entire economic and political team. He should replace them

If Obama fires them, chances are that he won't be able to replace them at all because Republicans keep blocking his appointments -- and that in itself hints at what the real problem is. He is a president, not a king, and as long as he's stuck with an obstructionist Congress, he'll be, well, obstructed.

By J. J. Ramsey (not verified) on 06 Aug 2011 #permalink

J. J. Ramsey - Obama was 2 votes away from a filibuster proof majority and he still couldn't get a public option in the health care bill?? It's not like Lieberman couldn't be bought!

@12: yes it is. Lieberman's only remaining political goals are spite and sabotage.