Obama and Boehner's Baffling Debt Limit Duel

Pundits puzzle over what, exactly, either of them were trying to accomplish in their speeches

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President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner again, last night, offered dueling speeches on the negotiations to raise the debt ceiling, which thus far look like a disaster that can only be surpassed by the economic catastrophe that will totally screw us all (according to pundits) if the debt ceiling isn't raised. What did the two accomplish with their statements? Not much, and many are wondering what, exactly, they were trying to do. And perhaps even the men themselves are unsettled by the direction of the talks--as he left Capitol Hill, Boehner was reportedly heard muttering "I didn't sign up for going mano-a-mano with the President of the United States," CBS News' Jill Jackson reports.

What Was Obama Doing?

Obama attacked Republicans for rejecting any package that included increased government revenues--what he calls a "balanced approach." Obama said Republicans were asking nothing of the wealthiest Americans, "And because nothing is asked of those at the top of the income scales, such an approach would close the deficit only with more severe cuts to programs we all care about--cuts that place a greater burden on working families. ... We would risk sparking a deep economic crisis--this one caused almost entirely by Washington."

But his speech was more notable for what it was missing, National Journal's Major Garrett observes:

If Republican leaders were sifting through Obama's speech for one word it was 'veto.' Its absence gives Obama, Boehner, and the Senate room to maneuver if, as now appears likely, Boehner's bill squeaks through the House and arrives in the Senate as a viable, though less-than-optimal, alternative to default.

And for his top priority, David Frum writes, Obama urged voters to write their elected representatives to demand the country not go through another debt limit stalemate till after the 2012 elections. 
Odd priority, no? You might have expected that this liberal Democratic president's red line would be the protection of unemployment coverage or some other social program. ...
Republicans have behaved dangerously and recklessly through this crisis. It was the Republicans indeed who forced the crisis. No excuses for them. Yet one of the motivators of Republican bad behavior has been the assumption that they faced a weak president who could easily be squeezed for concessions. Through this crisis, President Obama has acted in ways to reinforce that Republican assumption. 
Maybe Obama was trying to "reboot" the debt debate, The New Republic's Jonathan Chait writes. But it's unclear what how that speech would accomplish that, Chait says. 
I thought he would try to find some kind of lowest common denominator between the Reid and Boehner plans that would stand a chance of passing Congress. He didn't. Instead he appealed once again to the Grand Bargain. If Obama thinks Congress will pass something like that, he's nuts. ...
The most rational explanation for Obama's speech is that he's positioning himself for failure. He's explaining his position so that when Congress fails to lift the debt ceiling, Americans will blame the Republicans and not him.

And he was awfully condescending while doing it, The New York Times' David Brooks and The Weekly Standard's Bill Kristol argue. Brooks says Obama was talking down to Congress--on Friday, after talks collapsed, he "never should have gone in front of the cameras just minutes after the talks faltered... His appearance was suffused with that 'I'm the only mature person in Washington' condescension that drives everybody else crazy." And it had the consequence of bringing Congress together to "take control" and put Obama "on the sidelines," Brooks writes.

Meanwhile, Kristol is annoyed that Obama was talking down to voters, explaining what the debt ceiling was, as if most Americans don't already know. "[T]he president assumes we've never bothered our pretty little heads about such a thing. And he doesn't want us to start bothering our pretty little heads about it now," Kristol writes. "It would be nice to have a president who spoke candidly to his fellow citizens as adults."
What About Boehner?
Obama doesn't like Boehner's plan, but just as big a problem is that House Republicans don't like it either, Politico's Jake Sherman and Marin Cogan report. Although Boehner ran the plan by Rush Limbaugh Monday, The Hill's Alicia M. Cohn reports, before he showed it to fellow Republicans, and the talk radio host didn't attack the proposal, many House Republicans want the "cut, cap, and balance"--which won't pass the Senate--plan or nothing.
Many conservative lawmakers are denouncing Boehner's plan, The Hill's Molly K. Hooper and Erik Wasson report, with Rep. Jom Jordan, for example, announcing he would vote against the proposal even though he stood next to Boehner as the speaker was announcing it Monday. A Democratic official told Politico's Mike Allen that Boehner's speech was "an amazing tactical blunder," in his attempt to win over the GOP. "Who gives a speech designed to impress his caucus to the entire country?"
The National Review's Rich Lowry says Boehner should have "simply taken up [Senate Majority Leader] Harry Reid on his $2.7 trillion in cuts for a roughly comparable debt increase; said, 'Brilliant idea Harry, but we want to make some tweaks'; populate it with real instead of fake cuts; and then try to pass it through the House. ... That would be much simpler than the two-tier plan with the committee."
Whatever deal is agreed upon, The New York Times' Jackie Calmes writes that the whole debate "is shaping up to be a lost opportunity."
Whatever deal Congress and President Obama devise in this final week... it almost certainly will fall short of the compromise that [Obama and Boehner] nearly struck last week--before details of the negotiations leaked, opponents in both parties protested and Mr. Boehner left the table.
The difference between that attempted 'grand bargain' and what Congress is coming up with is not just a matter of dollars. Mr. Obama and Mr. Boehner did tentatively agree to more than $3 trillion in savings over 10 years--at least hundreds of billions more than is called for in the fallback plans now bandied about in Congress...
But the more significant difference is in where the savings would come from. The Congressional proposals mainly seek caps on annual spending for domestic and military programs and no additional revenues.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.