In his 2:00 EDT press conference, the president did a good job of forcefully reiterating his position on the government shutdown and the debt limit and fighting the “false equivalence” meme in the media. These are both critical missions right now, since (a) Republican skepticism about his steadfastness is central to the GOP fiscal strategy, and (b) the combination of bad media habits, the complexity of fiscal issues, and public hostility to “Washington” make the “false equivalence” meme very powerful.
Having said all that, two aspects of Obama’s pitch worry me. One involves his answer—or really, non-answer—to a question about the potential incompatibility of a “no negotiations” stance with accepting a series of short-term CRs or debt limit increases and then engaging in budget negotiations. At some point, whether it’s acknowledged or not, indirect linkage between these two “tracks” of essential fiscal steps and “unconditional” negotiations will develop. Just saying they aren’t linked won’t necessarily change that basic fact unless both parties agree permanently to eschew using CRs and debt limit votes as leverage. I don’t think that’s quite on the table right now.
My second concern may be more personal: I really think Obama is overdoing it in analogizing big fiscal decisions to household economics. In truth, sovereign nations are not just like families, and have resources at their disposal—and consequences for their actions—that are in no way comparable to those of individual households. The “kitchen table” analogies beloved of so many liberal pols over the years also cut both ways, as we’ve seen with the endless promotion of balanced budget amendments and arbitrary spending cuts by conservatives as analogous to an overextended family cutting up the credit cards or cutting out a few luxuries (indeed, that’s also the “conservative populist” argument for voting down debt limit increases).
I’m also, given the condition of the economy and the straightened circumstances of so many millions of Americans, a bit disquieted hearing a Democratic president refer to people who have missed a house or car payment as “deadbeats.” Maybe they are, but quite probably they aren’t; the crucial distinction is that the United States of America has the resources to “pay its bills on time” while many people don’t.
Yes, I know how crucial it is for Obama to find ways to “tell a story” about often-abstract fiscal issues that regular folks can understand. But there are road hazards down that path he should keep constantly in mind.
UPDATE: TNR’s Noam Scheiber dwells on the problem of denying successful hostage-taking in a context where budget negotiations are going on at the same time as short-term CR and debt limit increases.
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