Obama is winning on debt debate, but there’s no room for moral victories

Talking to senior administration officials these days is like talking to a basketball player who’s in the zone in the playoffs.

They know they’re playing well, but they also know that without a win, it’s meaningless.

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The White House thinks President Obama is playing the debt-ceiling debate just about perfectly. But administration officials realize that if they miss the Aug. 2 deadline for raising the ceiling, an already troubled economy could take a turn for the worse and ruin Obama’s chances for a second term.

It took guts for Obama to accept the offer from Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) to go for a big deal, because that required the president to agree to significant changes to Medicare and Social Security that were bound to draw criticism from the president’s Democratic allies.

Read that sentence again. It’s like the Democratic National Committee trying to auction off JFK’s grave to the Koch brothers to use as a heat lamp.

Obama didn’t just accept Boehner’s offer. He and the White House co-opted Boehner’s suggestion and seized it as their own.

Boehner challenged Obama to a footrace to the edge of a cliff, only to look up and discover the president was in a flat-out sprint with a 50-yard head start.

When Boehner tried to catch up, the story became about a possible split between Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.). Divided enemies — or at least the perception of divided enemies — benefits the White House.

Obama got kicked in the teeth last Friday when the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported the economy added a measly 18,000 jobs in June. It was a blow to the president, who is worried high unemployment could end his hopes for reelection.

Yet by Saturday night, unemployment had been bumped from the headlines by Boehner backing away from a big deal. 

Both parties agree the talks are stuck over differences on taxes, and Republicans think they can play up Obama as a tax-and-spend liberal.

But Democrats think they have an advantage as long as the tax questions center on the rich.

Democrats have mangled the messaging on tax cuts for the rich since then-President Bush passed them in 2001. Obama is finally getting it right by putting everything on the table, including entitlements, forcing Republicans to define what is most important to them.

In so doing, Obama has accomplished something no other Democrat has been able to: He has isolated Republicans as the party of tax cuts for the rich.

Obama added pressure to the debt talks on Tuesday, reportedly saying in an interview with CBS that the government might not be able to send Social Security checks out after Aug. 2. The move was intended to put more of the blame for the impasse on the GOP, and pressure them to move on taxes.

While the White House is on a roll, there are no feel-good stories here if there’s no deal, and senior administration officials know it.

They are giddy for the day when Obama can put this chapter in his stump speech and talk about how he took the big risk to get the big deal and do what’s right for the country.

But without a deal, it’s meaningless.

On Monday, television networks cut into “The Price is Right” and “The View” to show Obama’s press conference.

The White House hopes independent swing voters watching at home, who like most Americans are not following the back-and-forth of the debt-ceiling debate, saw a president willing to take on his party’s sacred cows. They also hope these voters buy Obama’s message that it is Republicans who are not being statesmen.

He encouraged the GOP on Monday to “step up.”

“Let’s do it. I’m prepared to do it," he said. “I’m prepared to take on significant heat from my party to get something done. And I expect the other side should be willing to do the same thing, if they mean what they say, that this is important.”

For Obama and his campaign, the name of the game is winning independent voters. Obama feels confident he is not going to get a challenge from his left, which allows him to offer concessions on Medicare and Social Security, including, according to Democrats familiar with the negotiations, an increase in the age to accept Medicare benefits in 2036.

Of course, Obama’s play for independents won’t mean anything if he doesn’t get a deal.

The economic calamities a default would cause are largely unknowable. But if the economy has been slowed down by “headwinds,” as Obama likes to say, then Hurricane Default could turn it into a recession.

If that happens, nobody will be spared. “I tried” is not a winning stump speech. “I delivered” is.

So today, in this moment, Obama is winning. But it’s not how he plays the game, it’s whether he gets a deal.

And that will require an all-star performance.

Youngman is the White House correspondent for The Hill. Find his column, Obama’s Bid for Reelection, on thehill.com.