The Logic Behind Biden’s Refusal to Negotiate the Debt Ceiling

The president’s current posture on the issue has a history.

Collage showing the White House, Obama, Biden, and an upward-trending line
Jim Watson / AFP / Getty; Georges Gobet / AFP / Getty; The Atlantic

President Joe Biden has already made the most important domestic-policy decision he’ll likely face this year. Biden and his top advisers have repeatedly indicated that they will reject demands from the new GOP majority in the House of Representatives to link increasing the debt ceiling with cutting federal spending. Instead, Biden is insisting that Congress pass a clean debt-ceiling increase, with no conditions attached.

Biden’s refusal to negotiate with Republicans now is rooted in the Obama administration’s experiences in 2011–15 of trying to navigate increases in the debt ceiling through the same political configuration present today: a Democratic Senate and a Republican House. While Biden says he won’t negotiate a budget deal tied to a debt-ceiling increase, then-President Obama did just that in 2011. Those negotiations not only failed but proved so disruptive to financial markets, and so personally scarring, that Obama and his team emerged from the ordeal determined never to repeat it. And when House Republicans came back in 2013 asking for more concessions in exchange for raising the debt ceiling again, Obama declined to negotiate with them; eventually the GOP raised the debt ceiling without conditions.

To understand the choices Obama made about debt-ceiling negotiations, and how they are shaping Biden’s approach today, I spoke with multiple officials from the Obama era: several Cabinet secretaries, as well as top aides from the White House, executive-branch departments, and Capitol Hill. Most chose to speak without attribution to candidly discuss Obama’s deliberations. What’s clear from these conversations is that almost none of the conditions that led Obama to negotiate in 2011 are present today. This helps explain why Biden is rejecting Republican demands, but also why the risk of a cataclysmic default is even greater now than it was then.

When Congress raises the debt ceiling, it does not authorize any new spending; it permits the Treasury to pay the debts the U.S. has incurred from earlier fiscal-policy decisions. A failure to raise the debt ceiling would lead to the federal government defaulting, something that has never happened, and which could crater the stock market, spike interest rates, and disrupt payments to the millions of Americans who rely on federal checks.

In some ways, Biden’s staunch refusal to link fiscal negotiations to a debt-ceiling increase is out of character for a politician who spent nearly four decades in the Senate and has prided himself on his ability to reach agreements across party lines. Even now, administration officials make clear that Biden is not precluding negotiations with House Republicans over fiscal policy. What Biden is saying is that he won’t allow Republicans to link fiscal negotiations to the threat of not raising the debt ceiling. That resolve flows directly from the Obama administration’s experiences.

The dynamics that prompted Obama to negotiate with Republicans in 2011 had started coalescing before the GOP won control of the House in the 2010 midterm election. After taking office in 2009, Obama’s first major legislative victory was the passage of a roughly $800 billion stimulus plan to help the economy recover from the 2008 financial collapse. Obama devoted the rest of 2009 to steering the landmark Affordable Care Act through Congress.

After Congress approved those expensive initiatives, Obama faced pressure from not only congressional Republicans but also a core of centrist Senate Democrats (including Senate Budget Committee Chair Kent Conrad of North Dakota) to develop some plan for reducing the federal deficit. Under prodding from Conrad, in February 2010 Obama appointed the bipartisan Simpson-Bowles commission to recommend a deficit-reduction plan. Throughout that year, “there was an awful lot of ‘grand bargain, let’s have a historic compromise’ in the air” in Washington, Jason Furman, the then– deputy director of the White House National Economic Council, told me.

Before the House changed hands in December 2010, Obama agreed with congressional Republicans on a major package to extend the tax cuts that had been passed under George W. Bush and to also temporarily reduce payroll taxes. Then, in April 2011, the Obama administration and Representative John Boehner, the new Republican House speaker, settled on a plan to fund the federal government through the remainder of the fiscal year.

So when Boehner and other Republicans put forward their demands to tie any debt-ceiling increase to cuts in federal spending, the Obama administration did not initially view the prospect of negotiations with horror, multiple former officials told me. Obama shared the belief that a “grand bargain” to control the long-term debt was a worthwhile goal. Furman said the former president considered it an “exciting opportunity.”

Jack Lew, who served as Obama’s director of the Office of Management of Budget (OMB) during the 2011 confrontation and as Treasury secretary in 2013, told me about another factor that contributed to the Obama administration’s willingness to engage: Negotiations that previous presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton had had with Congress about the debt ceiling had not proved that disruptive. Debt-ceiling negotiations “up until 2011 had a different character than after 2011,” said Lew, who served as a House Democratic aide in the 1980s and in the OMB for Clinton in the 1990s.

Armed with these convictions, the Obama team didn’t blanch, even when the new speaker went to New York in May 2011 to lay down what became known as the “Boehner Rule”: Republicans would demand one dollar in spending cuts for each dollar increase in the debt limit that they authorized. The two sides launched fiscal negotiations in talks led by Biden for the administration and Representative Eric Cantor for the House GOP.

As these negotiations unfolded, Boehner presented an increase in the debt ceiling as something Republicans were conceding in return for spending cuts. But the White House, including Biden, never saw things that way. The White House didn’t view the debt-ceiling increase primarily as a bargaining chip—they viewed it as the eventual legislative vehicle for moving through Congress whatever agreement the fiscal negotiation produced.

Even with that difference, the talks were serious and, for a while, productive. Biden praised Cantor and Cantor reciprocated. But in late June, the effort collapsed when it hit a familiar rock: The Republicans involved refused to consider raising taxes and Democrats would not agree to spending cuts unless they did.

Over the next few weeks, the speaker and the president, joined by only a few aides, then met for a series of secret negotiations to pursue a “grand bargain” on the deficit. The two men came close to an agreement. But their negotiations ultimately foundered when Obama and Boehner could not agree on the balance between tax increases and spending cuts. Like the Biden-Cantor talks earlier, the Obama-Boehner talks crashed in late July.

Only days before August 2, when the nation would face an unprecedented default, Obama, Biden and the congressional leaders in both parties gathered in the White House for a frantic final weekend of negotiations. The two sides were trying to avoid calamity in an environment of “pure acrimony,” Furman told me. “I think if you look at the photographs that [the White House photographer] Pete Souza took over the course of that weekend, you can look at our faces and you don’t need to hear any words,” Lew said. “If you ask President Obama about the two or three most gut-wrenching moments as president I have no doubt this would be on the list.”

Obama negotiating in a crowded conference room.
Pete Souza / The White House

Even though the “grand bargain” evaporated, the two sides (with Biden and Mitch McConnell at the center of the negotiations) reached a complex deal over that weekend. In the first stage, Obama got a $900 billion increase in the debt ceiling coupled with $900 billion in spending cuts. The deal linked as much as another $1.5 trillion increase in debt to the creation of a congressional “super committee” that would be guaranteed a floor vote on a plan to cut the deficit an equivalent amount. If the committee deadlocked, automatic spending cuts in defense and non-defense discretionary spending—what became known as sequestration—would be triggered. Though default was averted, months of these talks had led to a nearly universal recoil among the Obama team. There was no single meeting or moment when the president and his top advisers said, “Never again.” Instead, participants told me that that conclusion emerged organically. “I think the team around Obama really had a bad taste in their mouth after the 2011 episode and they really wanted to change the terms and dynamics of the debate, and that’s why they all embraced the idea that we can’t do this anymore,” Mark Patterson, the chief of staff at the time for Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, told me.

The White House frustration deepened in November 2011. The deficit reduction “super committee” was created in July but deadlocked on the same issue that had stymied previous bipartisan negotiation: the unwillingness of enough Republicans to accept tax increases that Democrats considered sufficient to justify big cuts in programs like Medicare and Medicaid. That stalemate triggered the severe sequestration reductions in discretionary spending—a squeeze that left Democrats fuming over the domestic cuts and Republicans incensed about the defense reductions.

All of that was the backdrop when House Republicans returned in 2013 with a new set of demands for raising the debt ceiling, which included unraveling Obama’s greatest legislative achievement, the Affordable Care Act. This time Obama declined to talk with Republicans. “In 2013, it was a very fresh memory that we got closer than anyone had ever come to defaulting,” Lew, who had by then become Treasury secretary, told me. From Obama on down, he said, there was a very strong sense that “we can’t ever be in [that] position again.”

House Republicans eventually conceded, passing an increase in the debt ceiling without any conditions in October 2013 and again the following year. In October 2015, Boehner, as his final act after announcing his intent to resign from Congress and vacate the speakership, engineered another extension that raised the debt ceiling through the remainder of Obama’s presidency while also loosening the sequestration cuts on both defense and domestic spending. Those three votes represented a sweeping victory for Obama’s new no-conditions approach to the debt ceiling.

Though Biden was among the most enthusiastic proponents of negotiations during Obama’s first term, no former officials recall him dissenting from the general rejection of that approach in Obama’s second. Notably, then–Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid (who died in 2021) took no chances: As the 2013 debt-ceiling fight approached, he personally told Obama to sideline Biden from any talks, because he considered the vice president too willing to make concessions to his frequent negotiating partner, McConnell.

On every front, most experts consider the environment even less hospitable today than it was during Obama’s presidency for the kind of budget deal that House Republicans are now demanding in order to raise the debt ceiling. Although Obama’s team and many congressional Democrats genuinely believed that a big long-term deficit-reduction plan was both good politics and good economics, Biden, as well as most congressional Democrats today, is much more skeptical of that proposition. And though Republicans could at least formulate specific spending-cut demands back then, they are far less likely to reach consensus today on a meaningful deficit-reduction plan. That’s largely because more of them have come to recognize that their political base, centered on older white voters, is just fine with government spending targeted toward them—particularly Social Security, Medicare, and even Medicaid and the ACA, which Republicans in the Obama era considered the bull’s-eye for their deficit-reduction plans. Moreover, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy has less control over his fractious conference than Boehner did, and McCarthy is even less willing than his predecessor to cross his most conservative members. But though these factors argue against a big deficit deal, especially one linked to a debt-ceiling increase, Biden must find some way to authorize more debt. He’s already facing calls from Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia to establish another special deficit-reduction committee.

For now, the White House, while indicating that Biden is open to talking with Republicans about the budget on other tracks, is digging in against linking anything to the debt ceiling. A former Obama official familiar with the Biden team’s strategy told me the White House believes that approach “is a matter of principle.”

Biden and his team have taken from the Obama years the lesson that if they don’t negotiate against the debt limit, a sufficient number of Republicans will eventually back down because the economic consequences of default would be so catastrophic. Biden may expect, for instance, that enough House Republicans will join House Democrats in advancing a “discharge petition” that would allow an increase to pass the House without support from the GOP leadership. Biden may be right in that calculation. But Obama’s no-negotiating posture on the debt ceiling worked mostly because enough congressional Republicans back then were unwilling to plunge over the cliff into default. The White House and financial markets around the world are certain to face many white-knuckled moments before they learn whether that is still true today.