Senate Democrats fault Obama for not using presidential bully pulpit

Senate Democrats are accusing President Obama of failing to use his bully pulpit effectively in the debt-ceiling fight.

They say most people are confused about the issue and don’t understand they’d face an economic catastrophe if the $14.3 trillion ceiling isn’t raised by Aug. 2. 

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While Democratic lawmakers share some of the blame, they say Obama has not used his media power aggressively enough to educate voters about the complex issue, and that this has given leverage to Republicans in negotiations on a deficit-reduction package that would be paired with legislation raising the borrowing limit.

“I think he’s done an OK job but it’s a struggle because it’s complicated,” said Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska), a member of the Budget Committee. “He should use the bully pulpit every single day. He could do more.”

Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), the former chairman of the Budget Committee, said the public has a “lack of knowledge” about the debt limit.

Lautenberg said “the leadership has to be more outspoken and make the case.”

“This is the biggest courtroom in the world, and you can’t get a verdict that is positive without making the argument,” he said.

Lawmakers have been more critical in private.

 One senior Democratic senator called the White House leadership on framing the debt-ceiling debate “feckless” and said he couldn’t understand why Obama hasn’t been more outspoken in calling for action.

A Democratic senator facing a tough reelection next year said it would be “disappointing” if Obama does not call out Republican leaders in the next few days for playing “Russian roulette” with the economy.

Obama might hear some of those concerns Wednesday, when he is scheduled to meet with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.), Senate Democratic Policy Committee Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.) and Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray (Wash.).

Business leaders and economists have warned the economy will be thrown into a tailspin if the borrowing limit isn’t raised, but polls consistently show the public opposes raising the debt ceiling.

A recent Associated Press-GfK poll showed that 41 percent of the public opposed raising the debt ceiling, while 38 percent supported doing so.

Obama said two weeks ago during an appearance on NBC’s “Today” show that the nation’s creditworthiness is “the underpinning of a global financial system” and failure to extend borrowing authority “could actually have a reprise of a financial crisis.”

Lawmakers say Obama should make this point repeatedly and emphatically, and that it would help if he were to travel around the country putting pressure on GOP lawmakers.

“I think everyone needs to do a better job of explaining to the American people what it means to raise the debt ceiling,” Reid said Tuesday.

Reid said the public needs to understand that raising the debt ceiling will allow the federal government “to pay our bills we already accrued” and that it does not just open the door to more spending.

Republicans have tried to enhance their leverage in deficit-reduction negotiations by arguing that failure to raise the debt limit would not necessarily result in a default.

 And Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) portrayed the debt-limit increase as an issue raised by the president, not as an impending fiscal necessity.

“The president makes the decision — makes the determination as to whether or not raising the debt ceiling is necessary. He has said that it is, and that’s why we’re having this discussion,” McConnell said.

 House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Republican Whip Jon Kyl (Ariz.) argued Tuesday that the debt limit does not necessarily have to be raised by Aug. 2, as administration officials have claimed.

 By casting the debt-limit increase as a Democratic instead of a national priority, Republicans have felt confident in taking a hard-line stance in negotiations with the other party.

While Democratic sources say their leaders have agreed to nearly $1 trillion in spending cuts, Republican negotiators have refused to entertain the prospect of ending special tax breaks to raise revenues.

Robert Borosage, co-director of the Campaign for America’s Future, a liberal advocacy group, likened the debt talks to a game of chicken, in which two cars race toward each other on a one-lane road.

 He said Republicans are confident that Obama will yield because he readily made concessions in December to extend the Bush-era tax cuts and in April to avoid a government shutdown.

 “Republicans believe they’ve created a credible threat that they’re willing to go to the wall,” he said.

 But a Democratic leadership aide said Republicans will ultimately agree to a deal because they privately admit that a default would be too damaging to the economy.

 “Republicans know they can’t take it all the way to a default because they will unquestionably be blamed for it, more than they would have been for a government shutdown,” said the aide. “Their fingerprints will be all over a catastrophic situation.”