Our political Quote of the Day comes from political pundit Walter Shapiro, writing in The New Republic. Shapiro warns that President Barack Obama is dangerously missing in action in making an assertive convincing case to raise the national debt ceiling — particularly dangerous since a good chunk of independent voters now are now siding with Republicans who don’t want to do it.
He gives this background:
Any incumbent in a marginal district knows that a vote to raise the debt ceiling will morph into a 2012 attack ad about his addiction to out-of-control borrowing. A recent Gallup Poll found that only 19 percent of adult Americans support raising the debt ceiling, while 47 percent are opposed and another 34 percent have no opinion. Ominously, by a three-to-one margin, independents oppose increasing the government’s borrowing ability.
Poll numbers like these help explain why the president has avoided talking publicly about the debt ceiling. In fact, a search of the White House database failed to find a single example of Obama uttering those two fateful words since leaving the Senate (where he voted against raising the debt ceiling in 2006). Instead, the issue has been left to the Treasury Department, which put out a well-argued fact sheet warning that default “would precipitate a self-inflicted financial crisis more severe than the one from which we are now recovering.” White House press secretary Jay Carney veers from calling a failure to act “calamitous” to blandly expressing optimism about an eventual deficit deal.
Looking at the arithmetic of Tuesday night’s debt-ceiling vote (97 Democrats voting aye, 7 voting “present” to protest GOP gamesmanship, and party leaders like Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer voting “no,” although they will undoubtedly support Obama on a final vote), it is hard to see how the legislation can ultimately pass the House without 80-90 GOP votes. Unless you believe that there will be a grand deficit bargain by the end of July (and elves are dancing in the glen), finding 80-90 Republicans willing to take on both the fury of the Tea Party movement and the doubts of independent voters is a daunting task.
That is why Obama’s silence on the debt-ceiling version of Russian Roulette is so troubling. Of course, the president is not going to convince the Glenn Beck brigades and Rush Limbaugh legions to support extending the government’s borrowing authority. But the bully pulpit does count for something with the independents who misguidedly believe that raising the debt ceiling is somehow more dangerous than the government refusing to pay its obligations. Two months is long enough for Obama to explain to the voters in the middle what the stakes are in what could prove to be the biggest political showdown between now and the 2012 election.
Jay Carney came to Tuesday’s briefing armed with a 1983 Ronald Reagan letter to Congress warning that “the full consequences of a default … are impossible to predict and awesome to contemplate.” Reagan, of course, was right. But even as Carney quoted Reagan, it was telling that the White House press secretary was not armed with a more contemporary line from a president named Barack Obama.
Indeed, this remains one of the curiosities of Obama’s political style. For all the pre-election talk about how he was going to dominate the political landscape and become another bigger-than-life and bigger-than-the-Oval-Office presence such as FDR or Ronald Reagan, he has remained a surprisingly reactive President.
He often appears to be like the college student who saves his studying for the last night or two before an exam, crams like crazy and pulls it off but sometimes may not quite do it.
In the case of the debt ceiling, thoughtful people in both parties who aren’t reading poll numbers or throwing out red meat to enhance their political standing or single-mindedly strugglng for survival realize this must be done. Shapiro is correct: Obama’s arguments so far have been perfunctory. He is largely absent in making the case for raising it or using any of his political clout to try and nudge the poll numbers. Obama seems to be saving his political capital — which will be greatly reduced if it turns out he miscalculated and various votes find it is not lowered…with all of the serious financial consequences that would follow.
Joe Gandelman is a former fulltime journalist who freelanced in India, Spain, Bangladesh and Cypress writing for publications such as the Christian Science Monitor and Newsweek. He also did radio reports from Madrid for NPR’s All Things Considered. He has worked on two U.S. newspapers and quit the news biz in 1990 to go into entertainment. He also has written for The Week and several online publications, did a column for Cagle Cartoons Syndicate and has appeared on CNN.