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Why Joe Biden is Correct About the Debt Ceiling
Like Obama, Biden is refusing to negotiate with the GOP over the debt ceiling
I worked in the West Wing during a financial crisis, a pandemic, multiple active terrorist plots, once-in-a-century storms, and the rise of ISIS. None of those threats were anywhere near as frightening as the two times the House Republicans tried to take the full faith and credit of the United States hostage. In both cases, a group of radical extremists with a faint grasp on reality led by a weak Speaker almost stumbled ass-backward into a global financial crisis that would make 2008 look like an economic head cold.
Well, here we are again.
A group of radical House Republicans led by a Speaker in name only is threatening a confrontation over raising the debt limit. Like President Obama in 2013, President Biden is refusing to negotiate with House Republicans. And like in 2013, all of the usual voices are raising concerns about that strategy.
What’s the harm in talking?
Won’t the President look small by refusing to sit down?
Won’t the Democrats look unreasonable?
This concern-trolling was embodied by a recent CNN interview where West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin called President Biden’s stance “unreasonable.” If you feel like your blood pressure is too low, feel free to watch the interview for fuller context.
I should note that Manchin’s recollection of those Congressional negotiations and President Biden’s role in the 2011 crisis are factually incorrect.
Manchin’s personal politics and his rudimentary, deeply naive understanding of national politics in the Trump era make such comments inevitable. But Manchin will not be the only one to complain about Biden’s posture. If Kyrsten Sinema ever deigns to speak in public, she will likely say the same thing. Calls for President Biden to engage with Kevin McCarthy and his band of bad-faith nuts will grow louder as the days count down to a possible default later this summer.
On its face, avoiding negotiations with the other party seems like a hard position to defend. And a particularly hard position to defend for Joe Biden, whose brand is unity and working with Republicans. However, substantively and politically, Joe Manchin (and everyone else) is wrong, and Joe Biden is right.
To understand why we are at an impasse, it’s important to understand how we got here.
The Lessons of 2011 and 2013
The last real confrontation over the debt ceiling was a decade ago. The national attention span is barely ten minutes, let alone ten years. Many of the people who work in or write/tweet about politics weren’t around back then. So, some of the ignorance and confusion is understandable.
Let’s start with the first debt ceiling fight in 2011. This is the one where Obama agreed to negotiate with Republicans as part of a process to resolve the crisis. Ron Brownstein wrote a thorough history of that decision in The Atlantic. I would encourage everyone to read the whole thing, but this is a key point:
The White House didn’t view the debt-ceiling increase primarily as a bargaining chip—they viewed it as the eventual legislative vehicle for moving through Congress whatever agreement the fiscal negotiation produced.
Even with that difference, the talks were serious and, for a while, productive. Biden praised Cantor and Cantor reciprocated. But in late June, the effort collapsed when it hit a familiar rock: The Republicans involved refused to consider raising taxes and Democrats would not agree to spending cuts unless they did.
To add a little context, Obama knew that engaging with then-Speaker John Boehner was a gamble and that negotiations might blow up in his face. But Obama — and the staff looped into the secret negotiations — did not view this Grand Bargain primarily as a vehicle for dealing with deficits. We viewed it as our only way to get Republicans to agree to additional stimulus to help create jobs and grow the economy during a painfully slow recovery from the 2008 Financial Crisis. It was a risk, but it seemed like a risk worth taking to help the people still suffering. Ultimately, the whole thing blew up in our faces. The country came within inches of default. To avoid that outcome, we made a deal that we would come to regret deeply. The economy was damaged, and the U.S. suffered its first-ever credit downgrade.
At the time, Obama pledged privately that he would never go down that path again. He would always be open to compromise and negotiation, but never with a gun to his head. You don’t negotiate with terrorists.
In 2013, Senator Ted Cruz and a group of Freedom Caucus members refused to fund the government or lift the debt ceiling unless the Affordable Care Act was defunded. This was legislative terrorism. The Republicans would blow up the economy if President Obama didn’t agree to repeal his signature initiative — a program that had been a central issue in the President’s winning campaign less than a year prior.
This time, Obama pledged not to negotiate. If they held a meeting, he wouldn’t come. If they called him on the phone, he would (politely) hang up. Raising the debt ceiling was Congress’s job — they would either do it or face the consequences. Obama made sure the public knew who would be to blame if default happened. He stared them down. In the end, the Republicans faced such backlash from the public that they blinked, reopened the government, and passed a clean debt limit increase. The ass-kicking was so emphatic that the Republicans walked away from this sort of brinksmanship… until now.
Why Biden is Right
President Biden and much of his senior staff were around in 2011 and 2013. They understand the dangers of allowing the full faith and credit of the United States to be used as leverage. But the reasons to avoid negotiating go beyond ‘negotiating DIDN’T work in 2011, and not negotiating DID work in 2013.’ There is a more important principle at stake. President Biden’s ability to govern is at stake.
Divided government is filled with fights, big and small. That’s the nature of the beast. We cannot — and should not — expect a Democratic President and Republican House to agree on much. Of course, the President's more ambitious legislative priorities died the day the Republicans won the majority. But even if there can be no agreement on how to solve the country’s big challenges, a handful of must-pass bills will require negotiation — government funding, disaster aid, money for Ukraine. On those, there will need to be negotiation and compromise from both sides. That’s the outcome that the public (kinda, sorta) chose when they voted for a Republican House while the Senate and White House are in Democratic hands.
But the debt ceiling is different.
First, the debt ceiling is not new spending or new policy — the sorts of things parties fight over. The debt ceiling is a simple, anachronistic mechanism to allow the Treasury Department to pay for spending that has already happened. It has nothing to do with the future or even with debts or deficits. Previous Congresses put a bunch of stuff on the credit card, and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen just needs Congress to okay her paying that bill. When the Republicans agreed to fund the government, they agreed to lift the debt ceiling. You can’t do one and not the other.
Second, with whom would Biden negotiate and over what?. Kevin McCarthy may be Speaker, but his power is so diminished that right now he only has marginally more power and influence than George Santos. There is no evidence or reason to believe McCarthy could deliver on any deal he negotiated. In fact, given the new motion to vacate rules, he is more likely to lose his job than ratify a deal that Biden signs off on. That presumes that McCarthy would operate in good faith and there is not a lot of evidence to suggest that he would. The Republicans have no coherent list of demands. Many of them want to cut Social Security and Medicare, but others say it’s off the table. Some want to cut the military, others want to increase military spending. Kevin McCarthy wants to eliminate funding for something called “woke-ism.” Jim Jordan wants to defund the salmon. The point is, Republicans want a fight for the sake of a fight. They clearly don’t know or care about what incited the fight.
Finally, and most importantly, Biden’s ability to govern is at stake. Republicans represent one half of one of the three branches of government. In other words, the public has awarded the Republicans with a little less than 17 percent of political power. If that minority representing a minority is able to extort the nation into policies that the public rejected at the ballot box, the entire system collapses.
If the MAGA Republicans can force cuts to Social Security and Medicare by putting a gun to the head of the U.S. economy, what will happen when the debt ceiling comes up again? Will they demand a federal abortion ban? National voter suppression laws? The resignation of cabinet officials?
This was the lesson President Obama learned from his experience in a similar situation. And it’s why President Biden is 100 percent correct not to engage with the Republicans in this rigged game. Not negotiating may annoy Joe Manchin and the putatively objective media that talk about politics for a living, but it’s the only option. We must aggressively and publicly back his position to balance out the pundit peanut gallery whose obsession with bipartisanship blinds them to the true dangers of MAGA extremism.