Commentary Magazine


What’s Obama’s Fallback Position if Congress Succeeds?

Yesterday, the White House let it be known that if House Speaker John Boehner’s latest debt ceiling proposal passes Congress, President Obama would veto the bill. Considering at the time the Republican caucus in the House of Representatives seemed to be in a state of pandemonium that seemingly doomed the Speaker’s chances of getting it passed, it seemed like a fairly safe bet the president wouldn’t have to make good on this threat.

But a day later, the situation may be a bit different.

Although Tea Party activists are screaming bloody murder about Boehner’s bill, with some even calling for his replacement as Speaker, the House GOP may be regaining its collective equilibrium with more members moving toward support of their leader. While its passage is by no means certain, the notion that it will fail when it comes to a vote tomorrow is probably more a matter of wishful thinking on the part of Boehner’s critics on both the right and the left than reasoned analysis.

If it does pass, then things get slightly more interesting as the House and the Senate will then attempt to bridge the gap between Boehner’s bill and the Senate debt ceiling plan put forward by Democratic leader Harry Reid. That will more or less put us back where we were this past weekend when Boehner and Reid were working to bridge their differences until President Obama ordered a halt to the Democrat’s attempt at a compromise.

At that point, the ball will be back in the president’s court. Will he insist, as he did in his demagogic speech on Monday that any solution to the crisis that does not include tax increases is unacceptable? Will he again try to spike any attempt at a compromise between Republicans and Democrats in Congress because it does not jive with his notions of “balance?” And, finally, if cooler heads prevail on the eve of the August 2 deadline and a debt-ceiling bill is presented to him for his signature, will he really plunge the economy into chaos for the sake of being able to go on railing about corporate jets and the supposedly under-taxed rich?

A veto would be an enormous gamble that could bring down on his head the full force of public blame for the crisis he has so assiduously tried to put on the Republicans. Signing the bill would be the right thing to do, but it would also make it impossible for him to credibly carry on with his class warfare rants about the evil GOP throwing grandmothers off the cliff.

Up until this point, the president appears to have carefully thought through his role in this crisis. He has stuck to a stance that is antithetical to compromise and eschewed the opportunity to lead in favor of one that allowed him to kibitz on the sidelines. If Congress can’t get its act together this week, he may be able to stick to that plan. But if it acts, then it will be time for the president to make a choice that, despite his pose as the only adult in the capital, he would prefer to avoid.