Commentary Magazine


When Obama Voted Not to Pay the Bills

President Obama used the last press conference of his first term today to continue attacking Republicans for even thinking about using the debt ceiling as leverage to force him to accept spending cuts. Over and over again, the president said he wouldn’t discuss whether the debt ceiling would be raised since it was simply a matter of Congress having to pay the country’s bills. Assuming the tone of a parent trying to instruct an unruly child in proper conduct, he likened it to going out to dinner and then deciding not to pay the bill, and declared it to be an unprecedented act of irresponsibility. But at least one member of the White House press corps wasn’t willing to let him get away with this line.

CBS News’s Major Garrett had the chutzpah to ask how the president’s denunciations of Republican threats not to raise the debt ceiling squared with his own votes while a U.S. senator. Senator Barack Obama voted several times not to raise the debt ceiling as part of a Democratic protest against the profligate spending of the George W. Bush administration. Yet when he was called out for this apparent contradiction, the president refused to be deterred. He simply ignored the point of the question, making it apparent that he was not going to let the facts interfere with his talking points. But the discrepancy between his record and the high-handed manner with which the president has continually sought to tar Republicans as extremists goes straight to the heart of the debate on the issue.

Far from this being just a case of Republicans not being willing to pay the bills for the expenses they have already incurred, what is really at stake here is a willingness to go on giving the government carte blanche to run up the debt without any real accountability. To use the president’s analogy, what is happening here is not a restaurant customer not paying his tab so much as it is one who demands that his credit card company raise his credit limit every month so he can go on paying for items that he couldn’t really afford. Contrary to the president’s assertion, raising the limit is very much related to new spending since it would be impossible without it. While another debt ceiling crisis and more uncertainty could hurt the economy, the president needs to own up to his own responsibility for the creation of this mess. The country will continue to sink under the weight of our growing debt until something is done about it. If Republicans have seized upon the debt ceiling it is only because there is no alternative that has been left available to them.

Only a few years ago when George W. Bush was president, Democrats took the tactical decision to use the vote on the debt ceiling to highlight what they thought was a government that had lost control of the budget. Though their suggestions for how to curb that spending were non-starters, they weren’t wrong about the need to focus on the subject. What President Obama seems to be saying now is that it was okay for Democrats to do that to Republicans but that it is unconscionable to try and turn the tables.

The entire focus of the president’s comments about the budget had one aim only: demonizing his Republican critics in the hope that public opinion would punish the GOP for using the debt ceiling vote to pressure the White House to negotiate on spending. Rather than talk with House Republicans about a deal, the president prefers to accuse them of holding the country hostage in order to advance their ideological goals. That’s a smart political tactic and played a not insubstantial role in his re-election.

But the inconvenient facts about his own use of the same tactic lays bare his hypocrisy on the issue. Far from being rooted in principle, the president’s refusal to acknowledge his past conduct shows that his current stonewalling on the debt ceiling is an act of cynicism unworthy of his office or the support of the public.