Now that the fiscal cliff has been resolved, we’re on to the fight over raising the debt ceiling. President Barack Obama wants no part of it. Immediately after Congress passed his tax increases to avoid the cliff, he insisted that there is no way he’ll negotiate over the debt ceiling. That would be so inappropriate.
Cue the hostage-taking analogies, the talk of extremism, the lamentations over a broken Washington. But why is the president outraged that someone would use the leverage of an impending event that would damage the economy to his negotiating advantage? It’s precisely how he won on the cliff.
No one called him a hostage taker when he didn’t immediately accept the House Republican extension of all the Bush tax cuts, and instead insisted on forcing a choice between higher tax rates on the wealthy or going off the cliff.
He got his way. Not because Republicans wanted to raise taxes. But because taxes would go up for everyone on Jan. 1, and very few people (and no Republicans) wanted that to happen. Obama used every ounce of his leverage to raise taxes on as many people as he could — and succeeded. Congratulations.
Now that the leverage may work the other way, Obama wants an end to all this crazy talk of negotiating things and compromising. “I will not have another debate with this Congress over whether or not they should pay the bills that they’ve already racked up,” the president bristled. He has apparently been an innocent bystander while the national debt increased by 60 percent since he took office.
We’ve hit the debt limit of $16.4 trillion, and it will need to be extended in a couple of months. When $16.4 trillion in debt isn’t enough, you’ve clearly got a problem. The president always says that we need a “balanced approach” to address it. In the cliff deal, he got one part of the balance.
What about the spending cuts that the president has said in the past should be a disproportionate share of any budget solution? He’s not the least bit interested in those, except as a rhetorical device. Which is why Republicans are always in the position of trying to force him to accept some sort of spending discipline.
In a better, more rational world, the debt limit wouldn’t be a tool of budgetary policy. But it is one of the few must-pass pieces of legislation that Republicans can use to force spending cuts, and it obviously relates directly to our budget problem. If the president doesn’t want the debate over it to go nerve-wrackingly down to the wire, he can set out a serious offer, now.
Of course, he’s doing the opposite. His refusal to negotiate isn’t sustainable, but he’ll spend precious time trying to sustain it. He’ll finally agree to talk, and then get Republicans to back off whatever their maximal position is — because Republicans will again fear being blamed if there’s no agreement. Another Band-Aid will be applied to the debt, until next time. In the Age of Obama, the new budget crisis always follows the last.
(Rich Lowry is editor of the National Review.)