An Issue of National Securities

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The following post is by Dealbreaker reader and commenter Infinite Guest.

President Obama has nothing to gain by negotiating with Republicans in Congress in order to raise the debt ceiling. The Department of Treasury doesn't need Congressional approval to issue more debt and it will be a long time before Treasury actually needs to exceed the debt ceiling.

The analyses I've read on the topic are nothing if not variable, but they all assume at some level an agreement by all parties on the basic necessity of raising the debt ceiling and the general wisdom of reducing the deficit. The President knows what needs to be done, the Congress knows and so does the electorate. Based on this shared understanding, it follows that those who act in the spirit of compromise will be rewarded and those who act to obstruct
progress will be punished.

Never mind the compelling absence of evidence that any such shared understanding exists; that's just not how things work.

The President, and this President in particular, is not answerable to Congress. The President is answerable to history, to the voting public, to our allies, to business interests including bond markets and in relatively rare cases to a 2/3 majority in the Senate. When the executive branch and the legislative branch can't work out their differences the Supreme Court acts as referree. If Congress failed to raise the debt ceiling, history would not be kind to a President who on their advice failed to honor our debts. The bond markets would not be kind, our allies would not be kind and consequentially neither would the voting public. But a President who stood up to a hostile, inexperienced Congress and continued to honor our debts would win support from all sides. There will have been sufficient turmoil and pain following Congressional failure to raise the debt ceiling that everyone on earth will understand who the heroes and villains are.

If Congress failed to raise the debt ceiling, the President could stand up to Congress on Constitutional grounds, in which case he could count on a fairly corporatist Supreme Court to eventually rule in his favor. He could stand up to Congress on National Security grounds, in which case he might even be able to secretly issue fresh debt. He could stand up to Congress on technical grounds for a very long time without provoking a Constitutional crisis or raising the debt ceiling simply by draining the Treasurys out of trust funds and replacing them with other assets. And if he had to break the law, as President, in order to stand up to Congress, then he could break the law on moral grounds, secure in the knowledge that if he is impeached, the Senate doesn't have enough votes to convict.

What would the electorate think of a President who defies Congress on any or all of those grounds? The Democrats would rally behind him, the Republicans would still oppose him and the independents would admire him for acting independently.

Now alternatively he can compromise to avoid a direct conflict but what's in it for him? He could give away everything his constituents like and it still wouldn't be enough to balance the budget. By compromising he snatches defeat from the jaws of victory. Democrats will hate him. Republicans will (rightly) say that they won. Without any drama to overcome through courageous and decisive action, independents will conclude that he's a weak leader who stands for nothing.

Politics is not about forethought, compromise and the public good. Politics is about personalities and political narratives and the balance of power. This narrative has yet to be written, but in the politics of the debt ceiling, President Obama has all the power and his opponents in Congress have none.

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