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Does Obama WANT a Debt Crisis?   April 19th, 2011
Obama's actions raise questions of his intentions       

 
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I know it's terrible that the question even has to be asked, but in the wake of Obama's budget speech fiasco I'm starting to wonder if President Obama wants a debt crisis.

Setting the Tone

While Democrats may not agree with Rep. Paul Ryan's budget outline, it was the first honest attempt at dealing with our runaway budget. Obama's original FY2012 budget presented in February didn't address the deficit, so Ryan's proposal got the discussion going.

Last week expectations were high that Obama would finally enter the debate. While I doubt anyone expected him to embrace Ryan's plan, it seemed possible that this would be a starting point for adult discussion on the matter.

It wasn't to be.

On a policy level, Obama recognized the need for deficit reduction... but then went on to say that he will oppose any plan that addresses the actual cause of our deficit and debt: Entitlements. He also refused to consider any cuts on his pet agenda items. In short, he made it clear he is not at all serious about providing leadership on the issue, nor is he interested in contributing to the debate in any meaningful way, and most likely will obstruct the implementation of possible solutions.

On a political level, the president invited Rep. Paul Ryan to the speech. Ryan attended and sat in the front row. Obama then proceeded to launch a disrespectful, partisan, and calculated political broadside against Republicans--especially Ryan who was seated just a few feet from the podium. The speech was almost universally panned as inappropriate, unpresidential, and devoid of any details.

Not surprisingly, Rep. Ryan was taken aback and stated the obvious: Obama's attack made it far more difficult to reach an agreement. The Republican base and tea party activists are furious both at last weekend's budget deal and Obama's speech. Even the bipartisan "gang of six" that are apparently working on their own budget deal more or less sighed at Obama's late and inflammatory entry into the debate.

Less than a week later, S&P gave a negative outlook on the United States' credit rating, stating "Because the U.S. has... what we consider to be very large budget deficits and rising government indebtedness and the path to addressing these is not clear to us, we have revised our outlook on the long-term rating to negative from stable."

It seems clear that S&P's change in outlook was a direct result of the president showing no interest in addressing the deficit, and his combative attitude towards the only serious proposal on the table from Rep. Ryan.

Obama and his team aren't stupid. They had to know last week's speech would make negotiations and compromise more difficult going into the debt ceiling debate.

So why would a smart political team launch that attack? Why would they specifically invite the Republican who has presented the only concrete deficit-reducing plan to a speech in which their intention was to eviscerate him?

Why Offer Up Concessions?

In addition, even before the speech the administration was curiously stating that it would be willing to consider tying the debt ceiling to spending cuts.

Softening the administration's earlier insistence that Congress raise the so-called debt ceiling without conditions, officials now say they won't rule out linking an increase of the borrowing cap with cuts aimed at reducing the deficit--even though they'd prefer to keep the issues separate...

But David Plouffe, a senior White House adviser, suggested Sunday in an appearance on NBC's "Meet the Press" that "in that process" of raising the debt ceiling "we should be able to reduce the deficit."


The quoted article above from the Wall Street Journal effectively conveyed the understanding that the White House was willing to negotiate with Republicans in a "cuts for debt ceiling" type of exchange.

Why would the White House express a willingness to attach deficit reduction to the debt ceiling vote? In any negotiation or bargain, it's strategically wise to drive a hard line and then give up what you've already decided you're willing to sacrifice as part of the negotiating process. But to signal up-front that you're willing to negotiate is to invite that negotiation.

A Difficult Debt Ceiling Debate

Given Obama's decision to politically attack Republicans and Rep. Paul Ryan, mock the proposal on the table, dig in and refuse to negotiate on the matters driving the debt, and then signal weakness by inviting Republicans to ask for something in return for the debt ceiling, the only conclusion I can draw is that Obama wants the debt ceiling debate to be difficult.

And there are only two reasons I can think of that Obama would want the debt ceiling debate to be difficult: 1) To use the debt ceiling debate for political gain, calculating that Democrats will win in the PR game in a high-stakes round of economic Russian roulette. 2) To increase the chances of an actual debt crisis.

Either of these explanations is worrisome.

Provoking political tension in order to play a high stakes game with the debt ceiling for political purposes would be betting the economic future of the United States in order to get reelected. Aside from being a pitiful and petty example of political brinkmanship, this also seems somewhat improbable: it's a complete gamble as to how the PR of that showdown would play out. It's possible it would help Republicans, not Obama. Gambling the future of the country for the opportunity to gamble on a PR battle is a lot of gambling with an uncertain outcome.

Does Obama Want a Debt Crisis?

If it's not a political game of chicken, that leaves the possibility that Obama wants a debt crisis.

Why would he want one? We can only speculate. But his former chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, famously said, "You never want a serious crisis to go to waste -- and what I mean by that is an opportunity to do things that you didn't think you could do before.".

Is Obama looking for an opportunity to do something he doesn't think he can do without a crisis? And if so, would he be willing to provoke an economic crisis to accomplish it?

We should consider the possibility that Republicans may end up playing chicken on the debt ceiling with someone who not only doesn't intend to blink, but who would be satisfied with either result and thus would have no reason to blink.


    Update 4/19/2011 10pm: I just stumbled on this article:

    Obama and the rest of the Democrats care so little about the coming crisis that they can see it only as an opportunity to demagogue their opponents. The left is scoring cheap points while America is careening toward the abyss.

    At what point do we conclude that the Democrats are like the man in the Escalade? They do nothing to head off the coming crisis because they want it.


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