President Obama and congressional Republicans are engaged in talks that Washington insiders and the rest of the nation desperately hope will end the painful stalemate initiated by what Obama has called Republican “extortion.” Former White House aides are linking the president’s steadfast stance to the lessons he learned during the 2011 debt fight, when he gave in to Republicans and believes he paid a high price.
The president and House Republicans opened the talks yesterday. Republicans have offered to raise the debt limit until late November, but that offer still does not meet the president’s liking. He wants to open the government before negotiations over broader budget issues can begin. Senate Republicans are proposing to reopen the government and raise the federal debt limit for as long as three months, which is closer to what the president wants. Obama is scheduled to meet with Senate Republican leaders today.
But as the two sides warily circle each other, they can’t even agree about what’s going on. The Republicans say they are negotiating, but the White House says they’re not — because the president has publicly declared that he would never negotiate over the debt ceiling.
“You don’t pay a ransom; you don’t provide concessions for Congress doing its job and America paying its bills,” he said in a news conference on Oct. 8. “You don’t get a chance to call your bank and say, ‘I’m not going to pay my mortgage this month unless you throw in a new car and an Xbox.'”
Shortly before his re-election, Obama told adviser John Podesta that he would never again bargain with Republicans over the debt limit, according to a story by Bloomberg News.
What happened in 2011, when he agreed to a deal with Republicans to end the budget stalemate “sent a signal that this was fair game to blackmail over whether the country would default,” said Podesta, a one-time chief of staff to President Bill Clinton and co-chairman of Obama’s 2008 presidential transition. “He feels like he has to end it and end it forever.”
The president feels that if he wants to get anything done during the rest of his second term – such as immigration, pre-K and infrastructure funding – he must stand up to Republicans right now.
If he doesn’t stand up, “he’ll be viewed as a guy who you can hold up,” said Podesta, who is now chairman of the Center for American Progress, a Washington research group.
But even though the public assigns much more of the blame over the budget standoff to Republicans, Washington insiders say Obama has more to lose than the Republicans if there is a debt default that leads to another recession.
“There’s a hell of a lot more at stake for the president of the United States,” said Leon Panetta, Obama’s former defense secretary and former Central Intelligence Agency director. “Nobody remembers who was speaker of the House when we went into the Depression; everybody remembers who the president was.”
“Presidents who are successful are ultimately presidents who are able to get it done, get beyond this crisis,” he said. “We cannot be a country that is constantly facing crisis.”