President Obama Must Go All In

President Obama’s administration has largely been a disappointment, not only to his liberal critics, but also to the President himself.  During his tenure, Republicans have manufactured a series of crises to extract significant concessions from him.  Yet, they want more, despite the fact that the Senate’s bill to fund the government is just 2% larger than Paul Ryan’s proposed 2014 budget.

If the President wants to leave the White House with something to show for his time there, he must hold firm.  Yet, in his speech Tuesday, the fault-lines for pre-emptive compromise were not far below the surface.  The President touted his willingness to cut earned benefits and lower the tax rate for corporations and the wealthy.

Rep. Paul Ryan was listening.  In the Wall Street Journal, he responded with an op-ed that some say was meant as a peace offering.

In reality, it was a cry for help.  The Republican Party is in a serious bind.  The only way they can escape is if President Obama again becomes their accomplice in enacting “bipartisan ideas” that are rejected by large majorities of the American public.

There is a dangerous alignment in President Obama’s speech and Rep. Ryan’s op-ed around the priorities of the economic elite.  Yet, instead of acting yet again as a handmaiden to the Republican austerity agenda, President Obama can and should hold firm.

As a good start, President Obama should announce his willingness to use the executive power of his office to raise the debt ceiling unilaterally, rather than cut a dime from earned benefits like Social Security and Medicare.  And he should use this option rather than settle on a short-term fix that will inevitably lead to more hostage-taking in the future.

Moreover, the President Obama should use this option rather than negotiate over the medical device tax (as Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois has suggested he would do) or give the $6 trillion in tax handouts that Rep. Paul Ryan is currently demanding.

What our government budget is suffering from, after all, is a revenue crisis.  So it would be foolish indeed for the President to slash corporate taxes.   After all, the effective corporate tax rate is at a 40 year low.

No doubt if the President raises the debt ceiling unilaterally, the Republicans will cry foul.  They will bring the matter to the courts or start impeachment proceedings.  Let them try. There are good legal justifications supporting the use of executive power to raise the debt ceiling (see this, this and this), despite you hear from corporate apologists who have served in the Administration.

No matter what response Republicans might make to such a maneuver, they would earn the public’s disapproval.  The American people admire strong leaders and their appetite for budget debacles was exhausted long ago.  We recognize what Washington is still ignoring: we’re in the midst of a Great Recession, with workforce participation levels lower than its been at any point in the last thirty-five years.

This crisis is an opportunity for the President to show that he is serious about fighting economic inequality and rebuilding the middle class.   He must make clear that he will not aid and abet those “brave” politicians who want to cut earned benefits for the elderly and healthcare for the sick just to give more tax breaks to millionaires and multinational corporations.

The crisis is also a political opportunity for the President.  Rep. Paul Ryan made a plea for help because his party stands on the brink of disaster.  If the President holds firm, he can break the Republican Party.  The populist Tea Partiers provide him with all the leverage he needs to counter the corporate elite and their representatives in Congress.

Instead of letting Speaker Boehner and Rep. Paul Ryan – backed by the Fix the Debt lobby and the banker barons who visited the White House last Wednesday – use the Tea party to force cuts to earned benefit and taxes, the President must use them to his advantage.  The Tea Party’s radical agenda can and should force fiscal conservatives in the Republican Party to side with the Democrats, unless they can convince President Obama to save them.

President Obama should not save the Republican Party.  He must leverage their divisions. Thus, he shouldn’t make any concessions to Speaker Boehner or Rep. Paul Ryan, including the passage of a short term deal.  The only rational way forward is for the President to hold his ground and force the Republican Party to fracture.  It won’t be pretty, but if President Obama wants to lead, he needs to act boldly.

A version of this op-ed, written by myself and David Hatch, appeared in The Hill on October 11, 2013.

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