President Obama used the final news conference of his first term to stake out his position on the upcoming debate over whether to raise the debt ceiling.
The President did what he does best, and what the person with the largest bully pulpit gets to do; he reframed the debate.
The argument, the President said yesterday, is not about authorizing the federal government to borrow more money. No, the money has already been spent by a profligate Congress, so the real issue is just about paying existing bills.
It’s a smart move, especially for a President who has presided over four years of annual deficits of at least $1 trillion and watched as federal spending has risen to 70 percent of GDP—the highest in U.S. history, except during WWII.
So the President, rather than actually addressing the real issue of out-of-control spending, creates a straw man argument that sounds as though it was dreamed up by an accountant at Enron.
The country can’t pay its bills because it has vastly overspent and borrowed, so we’re to believe the only option is to give the President the authority to borrow more money, even as we run even higher deficits, while doing nothing about the spending.
President Obama also attempted to gin up the jingoists with the phrase—which he repeated twice—“We’re not a deadbeat nation.”
Channeling my best Bill Clinton, that depends on what your definition of “deadbeat” is.
Someone who does not pay their bills is a deadbeat. So, it could be argued that if a showdown between the Congress and the President ended with no increase in the debt ceiling, there wouldn’t be enough money to pay the bills.
But the Merriam-Webster dictionary also describes a deadbeat as a “loafer,” a person that never accomplishes anything. It is self-evident that when it comes to even trying to bring federal spending under control, Washington has been sluggardly and the President has been absent.
Even the President’s own report on fiscal responsibility (Simpson-Bowles) was relegated to a White House shelf where it’s no doubt gathering dust.
The President tried to make his point yesterday using a restaurant analogy. “You don’t go out to dinner and eat all you want and then leave without paying the check. And if you do, you’re breaking the law. And Congress should think about it the same way that the American people do.”
Expanding on the same poor analogy, if you can’t afford the bill, why do you keep eating out in fancy restaurants?
But the President might just get away with it. The House Republican leadership doesn’t appear able to generate convincing counter-arguments these days. You’ll know the President is winning if you see Republicans trying to explain why the country should not pay its bills.
If the GOP wants to play the President’s game, the answer is, “if we’re not a deadbeat nation, why do we act like one?”