This afternoon President Obama gave a brief statement on the government shutdown, said nothing new, and received a warm collective embrace from the press, who made sure not to ask him about the disastrous ObamaCare rollout. And yet, perhaps out of exhaustion or a case of the second-term blues, Obama managed to accidentally say something worth quoting at the tail end of the Q and A.
The president was asked if he had any regrets about his 2011 budget deal with House Speaker John Boehner, and how the present political dynamics would have to change going forward. In his response, Obama actually touched on a popular critique Republicans have deployed recently, which is Obama’s hypocrisy for his past opposition to raising the debt ceiling, a tactic he and his allies now consider arson and hostage-taking when used by Republicans.
After first saying that he learned from the 2011 standoff that the country cannot come that close to “default” again, the president said this:
And by the way, you know, I often hear people say, well, in the past it’s been dealt with all the time. The truth of the matter is, if you look at the history, people posture about the debt ceiling frequently, but the way the debt ceiling often got passed was, you’d stick the debt ceiling onto a budget negotiation once it was completed because people figured, well, I don’t want to take a bunch of tough votes to cut programs or raise taxes and then also have to take a debt ceiling vote; let me do it all at once.
But it wasn’t a situation in which, you know what, if I don’t get what I want, then I’m going to let us default. That’s what’s changed. And that’s what we learned in 2011.
When Obama opposed raising the debt ceiling, he was just posturing the way people do “frequently.” In other words, when Obama makes a speech on policy he doesn’t actually believe what he’s saying; he just thinks enough of the voters will like his message. Obama is not, Obama says, to be taken literally. They are just words.
The other interesting nugget in that paragraph was the part where Obama said that in the past the debt ceiling was easier to sneak through without the public noticing until it was decoupled from omnibus spending bills. The thought process of America’s elected politicians, Obama explained approvingly, was: “I don’t want to take a bunch of tough votes to cut programs or raise taxes and then also have to take a debt ceiling vote.”
The Obama campaign seems to have calculated correctly that “Obama: Change we can believe in” would make a snappier bumper sticker slogan than “Obama: I don’t want to take a bunch of tough votes.” (The latter would also draw attention to his predilection as senator to vote “present.”)
This exchange took place after CBS’s Mark Knoller asked the president why he doesn’t support passing bills to fund important priorities while these non-negotiations drag on. Aren’t you tempted, Knoller asked Obama, to sign bipartisan bills that fund programs you support? “Of course I’m tempted,” Obama responded, “because you’d like to think that you could solve at least some of the problem if you couldn’t solve all of it.” Well yes, that does seem to be the point. This may seem reasonable, Obama said, but don’t be fooled. It’s a trap:
But here’s the problem. What you’ve seen are bills that come up where wherever Republicans are feeling political pressure, they put a bill forward. And if there’s no political heat, if there’s no television story on it, then nothing happens. And if we do some sort of shotgun approach like that, then you’ll have some programs that are highly visible get funded and reopened, like national monuments, but things that don’t get a lot of attention, like those SBA loans, not being funded.
You see, by funding uncontroversial and broadly popular programs while not automatically funding everything else, the Republicans are trying to trick the government into setting priorities, building bipartisan coalitions, and engaging the public in how to spend their tax money. Obama seemed to think this was self-evidently foolish, which tells you much about what the president thinks of the taxpayers.
Then the president added, almost as an afterthought: “And you know, we don’t get to select which programs we implement or not.” Since Obama chooses which parts of which laws he wants to implement and enforce at will, as if Congress were a supercommittee brainstorming ideas rather than a coequal branch passing laws, I’m guessing he would explain that he is again being take too literally when he’s obviously just posturing. Now he tells us.