President Obama is set to begin his second term at a moment when the question is not what great things our nation can achieve but whether our government, in Obama's words, can "stop lurching from crisis to crisis to crisis." The jury is out, but continued dysfunction seems the most likely scenario. Obama's news conference on Monday — his last scheduled encounter with White House reporters before Inauguration Day — was a tutorial in low expectations.
Obama devoted his opening remarks to the latest unnecessary crisis: the threat by Republicans in Congress to refuse to raise the federal debt ceiling. Such inaction would be "a self-inflicted wound on the economy," Obama said. That's an understatement. Failing to raise the debt ceiling would in fact be a catastrophe, putting the faith and credit of the U.S. government in doubt and destabilizing a global financial system in which the dollar is the benchmark currency.
Congress has a long history of playing politics with the debt ceiling — even Obama once voted against an increase when he was a senator — but there was always the understanding that in the end, the needed increase would be approved. It was unthinkable that the country would actually default on its obligations. But nothing is unthinkable anymore. House Republicans are threatening to force a default unless the president agrees to further spending cuts.
Obama flatly ruled out two scenarios that have been proposed as ways for him to raise the debt limit without approval by Congress — invoking an obscure clause in the 14th Amendment, or, more fancifully, minting a trillion-dollar platinum coin.
"There are no magic tricks here," he said. "There are no loopholes. There are no easy outs."
But he did appear to leave one door slightly ajar. Raising the debt ceiling has nothing to do with future spending; it merely provides the funds for expenditures Congress has already approved. Obama noted that if Congress fails to act, it will have given him two conflicting orders: Spend a specific amount of money on specific programs, but do not obtain the funds to make this spending possible. Some scholars have suggested Obama just declare that the instruction to spend outweighs the instruction not to borrow, and then let the Supreme Court eventually sort things out. We're not talking about how our leaders can best deal with some external threat. We're talking about how they might, just might, be able to avoid choking the economic life out of the country.
Republican leaders have begun talking about a series of short-term increases in the debt limit, each approved only as agreement is reached on further spending cuts. Said an exasperated Obama: "I'm not going to have a monthly, or every-three-months, conversation about whether or not we pay our bills." He's right. It would be madness for Congress to continue to pick fights over spending that Congress itself has approved. Obama can veto any short-term debt limit increase Congress sends him, but then he would have to find some way to raise the ceiling unilaterally. If he's prepared to go that far, case closed. If not, I see no evidence that appealing to House Republicans' sense of reason will produce anything but hoarseness and frustration.
The most positive recent development is that the financial markets seem to have become increasingly blasé about the government's dysfunction. The consensus seems to be that we'll find some way to muddle through without committing an act of national self-asphyxiation. But it's pretty pathetic when the most hopeful thing you can say about our government is that our leaders probably won't do excessive damage to the country's well-being.
There's lots of important work to be done -- minimizing gun violence, implementing health care reform, tackling the immigration issue, trimming Pentagon spending. Instead, congressional Republicans are focused on brinksmanship that is at best pointless, at worst destructive.
"That's not a credible way to run this government," Obama said. As if we hadn't noticed.