President Obama portrays himself as the nonpartisan adult in the room in the struggle over raising the debt limit. In his nationally televised speech Monday, he placed himself above Washington’s “three-ring circus,” as someone who has “put politics aside” and is desperate for a bipartisan “compromise” between Democrats and Republicans.
But is this the role Obama has actually played over the past few weeks, as the August 2 deadline imposed by his administration nears? Let’s look at the record.
In his speech, Obama made no mention of the bipartisan agreement presented to him on Sunday by Senate majority leader Harry Reid. It would have increased the debt limit by $2.4 trillion in two steps – one for about six months, and the second for approximately the following twelve months – and cut spending by a roughly equal amount. It was a deal worked out by Reid and Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell.
Obama flatly rejected it. At the time, staffers of Reid and McConnell were working together on the final details of the agreement. When Reid returned to Capitol Hill, he withdrew his aides.
It turns out the president insists that the debt limit be hiked in a single step, covering 18 months and allowing the government to borrow and spend past the presidential election in November 2012. This is necessary to avoid a credit downgrade, higher interest rates, and another slugfest in six months, he said.
But are those legitimate concerns? The average length of debt limit increases is around seven months. “President Reagan did it 18 times,” Obama noted in his speech. That’s an average of a hike a bit less than every six months.
Nonetheless, the president has been adamant. “The only bottom line I have is that we have to extend this debt through the next election [and] and into 2013,” he said at his press conference last Friday.
Republicans have another explanation. “There is no economic justification for insisting on a debt limit increase that brings us through the next election,” McConnell said yesterday. “It’s not the beginning of a fiscal year. It’s not the beginning of a calendar year. Based on his own words, it’s hard to conclude that this request has to do with anything, in fact, other than the president’s reelection.” A vote next year would put a spotlight on Obama’s key political vulnerability, spending and debt.
One might think from the president’s claim of aloofness that he acted as a fair and effective mediator in the five days of talks he presided over at the White House. Quite the contrary, according to three participants.
He was not above the fray. He exacerbated disagreements. Obama hardly let anyone else talk. When a Republican made a point, he would interrupt and dispute the point, talking on and on. Instead of tugging Republicans toward a compromise, he alienated them.
Obama’s speech on Monday was not a serious attempt, by a nonpartisan overseer of the national interest, to bring Democrats and Republicans together. It was a partisan attack on Republicans.
He delivered a campaign speech that emphasized themes lifted from his reelection effort. It may help Obama in his bid for a second term, but its chances of producing a debt limit compromise to Obama’s liking are just about nil.