How Obama Is Winning Debt-Ceiling Politics—and Why It Doesn't Matter

The president holds a press conference to keep the heat on Congress, but Congress may be impervious to public opinion.

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Why did President Obama have a press conference Monday? In calling on Congress to raise the debt ceiling, he mostly said the same things he's said before -- that a default or government shutdown would hurt the economy, that deficits must be reduced in a balanced way, and that he won't make deals over something that's fundamentally Congress's responsibility.

But there was a clear goal in Obama's remarks, and it reflected a lesson learned in his first term as he prepares for his second. The president appears newly conscious of the need to seize control of the public narrative and win the political battle with Congress, something he's often failed to do in the past.

"Raising the debt ceiling does not authorize more spending," Obama said. "These are bills that have already been racked up, and we need to pay them .... Republicans in Congress have two choices here. They can act responsibly and pay America's bills, or they can act irresponsibly and put America through another economic crisis. But they will not collect a ransom in exchange for not crashing the American economy."

It's important for Obama to make this point, because raising the debt ceiling isn't necessarily a popular thing to do. Voters, hearing the word "debt," tend to think it's about politicians spending more money. That's why politicians in the opposition party -- among them then-Senator Barack Obama in 2006 -- tend to vote against debt-ceiling hikes to score a cheap political point against the president. Obama hopes that by explaining that the money has already been spent -- and pinning the blame for that on a Congress that's all talk when it comes to actually cutting government spending -- he can change that calculus.

But the ephemeral political advantage of demagoguing the debt ceiling disappears as soon as the government actually shuts down and/or defaults, something for which the public appears prepared to blame Congress, and especially Republicans in Congress. Thus you have Obama hammering on the consequences of debt-ceiling inaction: "If congressional Republicans refuse to pay America's bills on time, Social Security checks and veterans benefits will be delayed. ... It would be a self-inflicted wound on the economy. It would slow down our growth, might tip us into recession. And ironically it would probably increase our deficit."

Obama continued to insist he won't negotiate over the debt ceiling, which congressional Republicans see as their most significant point of leverage in the upcoming trio of fiscal deadlines. The White House's thinking is that he can simply continue to say, "Do your job," to Congress when and if they come to him seeking concessions in exchange for it, and refuse to have any further conversation.

That's a bit difficult to believe, as a couple of Obama's questioners in the White House press corps pointed out. First, debt-ceiling hikes have historically been packaged with larger fiscal deals between presidents and Congress. Second, Obama has often drawn supposed lines in the sand before only to negotiate them away -- take the fiscal-cliff deal, less than a month old, in which the president abandoned his supposedly ironclad promise not to preserve Bush-era tax rates for incomes over $250,000. And third, given that the debt-ceiling deadline coincides with the double deadlines for sequestration and budgeting, it will be difficult for Obama to negotiate over one without negotiating over the other.

Nonetheless, in vigorously explaining the debt ceiling and setting out his position, Obama is playing a more aggressive political game than he has in the past. With the formidable power of the bully pulpit on his side, he's trying to ensure that the debate over the debt ceiling stays on his terms -- a conversation about whether Congress can get its act together -- rather than allowing Republicans to turn it into a conversation about government spending.

The problem for Obama is that he can win the political battle until he's blue in the face without necessarily changing minds in Congress. As the fiscal-cliff mess demonstrated, there's an undaunted minority of House Republicans who aren't interested in compromise and aren't susceptible to pleas from Speaker John Boehner to change their tune. That hasn't changed, as Politico reported today. Boehner is contemplating forcing a shutdown -- not because it's a good idea politically or policywise, but to placate the conservatives in his caucus.

Top Republicans know this stuff is making them look bad. They're just powerless to stop it.

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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