Debt Ceiling Theatrics, in Two Acts

US President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference in the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White Houes in Washington, DC, July 11, 2011.

This is all for our own good, President Obama said as he tried again to press his case for a sweeping package of spending cuts, new tax revenues, and entitlement adjustments to reign in the size of the federal deficit.


In a crowd of resistant Democrats and irresponsible Republicans, Obama is making a play as the Reasonable Ref. The markets don’t seem bothered by the pending August 2 deadline, and now Boehner and Obama both said with confidence that lawmakers will pass an increased debt limit, but at least rhetorically, there are still competing lines in the sand on taxes that are not in striking distance, at least publicly.

Obama’s New Script

For a minute, flash back to after the 2004 election, when the shocked Democratic establishment got obsessed with a book called Don’t Think of an Elephant, a book by liberal linguist George Lakoff. He argued that liberals were losing the rhetorical battle because they weren’t framing their positions that worked most to their advantage.

In Lakoff’s summation, the conservative worldview is based on seeing government as a strict parent, where there are clear rewards and punishments to shape behaviors. Liberals, Lakoff posited, saw government more as a nurturing parent, who takes a more nuanced approach than easy carrot and stick.

The trouble, Lakoff observed, was that it’s much easier to explain carrots and sticks.

Obama referenced that challenge again as he pressed for a comprehensive, “balanced” approach. “This is part of the problem when folks are rewarded for saying irresponsible things to win elections or obtain short-term political gain,” he said. “When we are actually in the position to do something hard, we haven’t always laid the groundwork for it.”

That’s why, Obama argued, polls are not in favor of raising the limit. “The public is not paying close attention to the ins and outs of how a treasury auction goes. They shouldn’t,” he said. “We’re paid to worry about it.”

Obama continued again to present Washington dealmakers as impulsive children out of step with concerns of Americans. A few weeks ago, he compared lawmakers to kids who had less disciplined approaches to their homework than his daughters. This time, it was “eat our peas.”

Part of that plate of peas has to be new tax revenue, the president said, because otherwise cuts have to be greater to make up for it.

He also pointed to the work Democrats have to do to bring their caucus along. And here, Obama took on the right’s framing of him head-on. “It’s not because I want to raise the revenues for the sake of raising revenues, or because I have some grand ambition for , finite number of ways to do it,” he said. “If you don’t have revenues, it means you’re putting more of a burden on the people who can least afford it, and I think the American people agree with me on that.”

Without new tax revenue, Obama said, “it’s seniors, or it’s poor kids, or it’s medical researchers, or it’s our infrastructure that suffers.”

That is something “I do not want, and I will not accept,”drawing his lline in the sand.

Boehner’s Rebuttal

“Speaker Boehner has been very sincere about doing something big,” Obama said on Monday morning, but the president noted there are “very difficult” politics in the Republican caucus.

But when Boehner took to the podium, he presented a united front, declaring bluntly, “Tax hikes destroy jobs.”  

 “We don’t need more taxes,” Boehner said, quoting Florida Sen. Marco Rubio of the party’s Tea Party wing. “What we need are more taxpayers.”

“The House cannot pass a bill that raises taxes on job creators,” Boehner said, staking his ground clearly.

And for good measure, just in case this task isn’t daunting enough with three weeks to go before August 2, he made clear that reimagining Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid should also be part of the deal.

“Can you control government spending without fundamentally reforming entitlements?” Boehner said. “I think the answer is no.”

And with those battlelines redrawn, Boehner headed back behind closed doors with the president.