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Bernie's Latest Column: A President Who Is More Like Harry Reid than Harry Truman
By: Bernie GoldbergOctober 8, 2013

President Obama says if Republicans fail to increase the debt ceiling they will be responsible for an “economic shutdown.”  The Treasury Department says if the U.S. government defaults on its obligations, it would be “catastrophic.”

D-Day is October 17.  That’s when the government of the United States technically runs out of money to pay our debts.  You’ll be hearing a lot about a U.S. government “default” – the first in our long history — but that’s misleading.  There will be enough money to pay bondholders, so there won’t be any real default.  Still, the government won’t be able to pay all its bills on time and that could turn out to be serious, especially if the financial markets get spooked and stocks tank while interest rates soar.

Here’s how bad things could get, according to the Obama administration:  “In the event that a debt limit impasse were to lead to a default, it could have a catastrophic effect on not just financial markets but also on job creation, consumer spending and economic growth,” according to a report put out by the Treasury Department.

“Credit markets could freeze, the value of the dollar could plummet, U.S. interest rates could skyrocket, the negative spillovers could reverberate around the world, and there might be a financial crisis and recession that could echo the events of 2008 or worse,” the report added.

Wow!  Sounds pretty serious.  So what is the President of the United States of America planning to do to make sure Armageddon doesn’t come to pass? The best I can figure, the answer is … nothing.

Republicans want spending cuts tied to increases in the debt ceiling.  Mr. Obama says he won’t negotiate.  Let’s see if I understand this:  President Obama thinks failure to increase the debt ceiling could shutdown our economy and lead to lots of bad stuff, but he won’t compromise to avoid disaster?  Is trying to humiliate Republicans so important to him that he would actually stand by and do nothing in the face of an economic crisis?  I’m guessing the answer is yes.

Mr. Obama says that raising the debt ceiling won’t add to the national debt.  “That’s not what this is about,” he recently said. “It doesn’t cost taxpayers a single dime. It doesn’t grow our deficits by a single dime. …What it does is allow the U.S. Treasury, the U.S. government to pay the bills that Congress has already racked up.”

Technically, the president is right.  But continuing to raise the debt ceiling allows Democrats in Congress to keep spending more than the government takes in, knowing that at some point down the road – after they’ve spent a few trillion dollars more than they collect — they’ll again be faced with a crisis that would force them to once again … raise the debt ceiling.  Can you say “vicious circle”?

That’s why the Republicans are pretty much saying, “We’ll pass an increase, but help us out Mr. President.  Let’s reduce the current levels of spending.  We can’t go on like this forever.”

Mr. Obama wants none of it.  He’ll talk about spending he says, only after Republicans give him his increase in the debt ceiling.  Of course, after the increase takes effect, the GOP will have a lot less negotiating power – which is just how the president and Democrats in Congress want it.

In our system, the president has two roles.  He’s the leader of his party, but he’s also the president of all Americans.  He has an obligation to do more than score political points for his team.  But for quite a while now Mr. Obama has been acting like Harry Reid, not like Harry Truman – or any other president who didn’t consider himself above it all, looking down on the peons from a cloud.

Speaking of Harry Truman, here’s what freshman Senator Barack Obama said back in 2006 when President Bush asked Congress to raise the debt ceiling:

“The fact that we are here today to debate raising America’s debt limit is a sign of leadership failure. It is a sign that the U.S. government cannot pay its own bills. It is a sign that we now depend on ongoing financial assistance from foreign countries to finance our Government’s reckless fiscal policies. … Increasing America’s debt weakens us domestically and internationally. Leadership means that ‘the buck stops here’. Instead, Washington is shifting the burden of bad choices today onto the backs of our children and grandchildren. America has a debt problem and a failure of leadership. Americans deserve better.”

I couldn’t agree more.

But it was all a mistake, Barack Obama, has since said — a foolish mistake made by a rookie senator who was thinking more about politics than the good of the nation.   “I think that it’s important to understand the vantage point of a senator versus the vantage point of a president,” he told George Stephanopoulos. “When you’re a senator, traditionally what’s happened is, this is always a lousy vote. Nobody likes to be tagged as having increased the debt limit – for the United States by a trillion dollars. As president, you start realizing, you know what, we, we can’t play around with this stuff. This is the full faith and credit of the United States. And so that was just an example of a new senator making what is a political vote as opposed to doing what was important for the country. And I’m the first one to acknowledge it.”

That’s one way to put it.  Here’s another way:  The most partisan American president in a very long time is also the most cynical.  He will say and do anything that suits his purpose at the moment.

As I write this most of the blame for the partial shutdown of the government is being put on Republicans.  If the president refuses to make a deal on the debt ceiling – just as he’s refused to compromise on the shutdown – the tide may change; the American people may finally wake up and start blaming Barack Obama for being obstinate.  They may start to see him as the politician that he is, despite his lofty rhetoric to the contrary. But I’m not betting on it.

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