Obama plays kick the can

All eight congressional leaders attending Thursday’s White House meeting on the debt-ceiling negotiations know it’s time to stop behaving like schoolchildren and “do something big,” as The Grown-Up has declared.

All of them know President Obama is skeptical of “some in Congress who want to do just enough to make sure that America avoids defaulting on our debt in the short term but then want to kick the can down the road when it comes to solving the larger problem of our deficit.” And they know that he doesn’t “share that view.” At least not now, anyway.

ADVERTISEMENT
With enough time squandered, and the pressure mounting, the stage is set for another theatrical “showdown” between President Obama and his GOP colleagues. As they stare down the deadline on default, both sides hope they can win the ultimate political chicken match, score with independent voters and maybe even do something to help the country. 

Obama hopes the swing voters he has lost since his election in 2008 simply haven’t noticed the months-long, can-kicking binge he just concluded in time to become a sacred-cow killer committed to bold deficit reduction, including entitlement reform. No matter that Obama ignored the recommendations of his own debt commission in December, gave a State of the Union address in January that punted on true cuts to mandatory spending and introduced a budget in February that kicked more cans. In April he introduced a new budget that was meant to get serious on deficit control, even as he simultaneously requested that the Congress approve an increase in the debt ceiling without any spending cuts. 

But now Obama wants deep cuts, a long-term solution and borrowing authority large enough to get past Election Day in 2012 — all in two weeks. The monster deal hasn’t been easy to come by, even when there was time and genuine bipartisan cooperation. The Gang of Six made a valiant attempt, before quietly perishing after Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) walked out. The Biden group bit it after House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) walked out. And today, in deadlock, the president decided to invite some people who have thus far not been involved in negotiating the deal’s terms, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who is likely to cost — not win — Democratic votes for any final package. 

Obama’s obvious overtures to the Democrats probably mean he is about to enrage them even more than he did in December when he broke a campaign pledge and extended the Bush tax cuts. Last week, before Obama had transformed into mediator-in-chief, he gave the GOP the kind of partisan scolding liberals have been begging for. He chastised Republicans for their intransigence on tax breaks for fat cats, railing against the tax-code goodies Republicans are protecting for Big Oil, hedge-funders and corporate jet owners. Even combined, the “loophole” items are an insignificant sum, but count on the new debt-slashing Obama to brandish this populist cudgel repeatedly if Republicans don’t come to their senses and agree to eliminate them. 

But that was last week. Now Obama — deficit foe — has started meeting secretly with House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio.) He knows he might get some tax breaks repealed, but he isn’t going to convince Republicans to back new taxes in the next two weeks. He knows Republicans can dare him to veto a hike in the debt ceiling that cuts spending without significant new revenue. And if that means getting the debt debate off the table before the election — kicking the can down the road, so to speak — he is likely to take it.

Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.