President Obama repeatedly insists that the debt ceiling must be raised by at least $2.4 trillion. Why this particular amount, rather than, say, an even $1 trillion or $2 trillion? Because $2.4 trillion is Obama’s estimate for what it would take to get him through the next election without needing to deal with another debt ceiling battle. In other words, $2.4 trillion is a politically generated figure.
It’s hard to conceptualize sums as vast as $2,400,000,000,000.00 in newly borrowed money, new deficit spending, and new debt. How much, really, is it? Well, even after adjusting for inflation, it’s about the same amount of money that we borrowed to fight World War II.
According to the White House Historical Tables, at the end of 1941, our debt — in 2011 dollars — was $0.8 trillion. By the end of 1945, it was $3.3 trillion, a difference of $2.5 trillion. (If you start the clock at the end of 1940, our debt increased by $2.6 trillion by the end of 1945, but that includes 15 months — 11 before Pearl Harbor and 4 after V-J Day — when we weren’t at war.) In other words, in inflation-adjusted dollars, Obama wants to borrow and spend about the same amount of money to get from August 2, 2011 through November 6, 2012 as we borrowed and spent to fight the Axis powers on two fronts from December 7, 1941 to August 15, 1945.
To give another comparison, from the year of Obama’s birth, 1961, through the last year of the Reagan administration, 1988, the United States of America accrued $2.4 trillion in new debt — again, in inflation-adjusted (2011) dollars. So Obama is now insisting that he be allowed to rack up the same amount of inflation-adjusted debt in the next 15 months as Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, and Reagan did during Obama's first 27 years.
Yet Obama doesn’t just want his $2.4 trillion. He wants this on his own terms. He has threatened to veto Republican legislation to cut, cap, and balance spending in exchange for raising the debt ceiling by $2.4 trillion, because he claims that “setting arbitrary spending levels” is not “necessary to restore fiscal responsibility.” This, from a president under whom the federal government is spending a little over $7 this year for every $4 it takes in, and a president who has refused to reform entitlements even though (according to his own budget) mandatory spending alone will exceed total federal revenues this year (and that’s before Obamacare has really even kicked in), and under whom annual deficit spending has been more than twice as high as a percentage of the gross domestic product than under any other recent president.
Since Obama says he isn’t willing to take this $2.4 trillion because he opposes caps, Republicans should vote to raise the debt limit by $1 trillion (or even $1.5 trillion), paired with at least $1 trillion (or $1.5 trillion) in spending cuts, with no caps — leaving it to Obama to explain to the American people why he still needs more. Even more importantly, they should pass legislation dictating the order of payments in the event that we hit the debt limit — just for the big-ticket items like troops’ and veterans’ pay, Social Security checks, Medicare, and payments to creditors and vendors. Then, with such legislation securely in place, they should dare Obama to let August 2 (or 9th, or 16th, or 23rd, or 30th) come and go because he doesn’t get enough of an increase in the debt ceiling — at least on his terms — to set up his reelection campaign the way he wants.