February 27, 2021

White House Memo: President on Sidelines in Critical Battle Over Debt Ceiling

He spoke repeatedly but without specifics of private conversations and nonstop meetings involving administration officials “up to the highest levels” — White House shorthand for the president. Finally, exasperated, he asked whether reporters expected “a President Bartlet moment” — say, a march up Capitol Hill to whip Congress in line, à la fictional president in “The West Wing” television series.

“Yes,” one reporter replied.

Reality is not so simple. The two parties remain seemingly further apart than just days before the Treasury Department’s Aug. 2 deadline for raising the $14.3 trillion debt limit, threatening a financial crisis that could ripple through the economy. But with the collapse last week of Mr. Obama’s back-channel talks with House Speaker John A. Boehner, the action has shifted to Congress.

Having already deployed the heavy weapons from the presidential arsenal, including a national address on Monday night and a veto threat, Mr. Obama is in danger of seeming a spectator at one of the most critical moments of his presidency. Having been unable to get the grand bargain he wanted — a debt limit increase and up to $4 trillion in debt-reduction through spending cuts and taxes — Mr. Obama’s challenge now is to reassert himself in a way that produces the next-best outcome, or at least one that does no harm to his re-election hopes.

Behind the scenes, administration officials led by Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., the White House chief of staff, William M. Daley, and Mr. Obama’s budget director, Jacob J. Lew, are scrambling via telephone, e-mails and trips to the Capitol to try to shape the emerging legislation as Mr. Obama and Congressional Democrats want. Their goal is a $2.4 trillion increase in the debt limit that would extend the government’s borrowing authority past the 2012 election campaign, not the shorter increase the Republicans now want, and also provide a similar amount in deficit reduction over the decade.

On a parallel track the Treasury secretary, Timothy F. Geithner, is “omnipresent” at the White House, by one official’s description, leading the effort with Mr. Lew to plan for emergency actions by the government and the financial system should Congress and Mr. Obama fail to reach an agreement.

No measure can pass without the president’s signature, so Mr. Obama is far from irrelevant. But his limited ability in a divided government to affect the legislation and his inability before now to shape a compromise with House Republicans, many of them dedicated to never compromising with him, is proving the most significant test to date of his campaign promise to bridge the two parties and make Washington work.

Worse, with the health of a still-fragile recovery resting on the outcome, a bad ending could leave Mr. Obama more vulnerable politically than he is now, with 9 percent unemployment, on the issue that is likely to define the 2012 elections — his handling of the economy.

“I don’t think a president is ever completely helpless, but having said that, my interpretation of the nationally televised address that he gave was that he had no arrows left in his quiver,” said Bill Galston, a former Clinton administration official and now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a research organization. “If he’d had another card to play, that was surely the time to play it. He’s the ultimate decider but, on the other hand, I think his capacity to shape what gets to his desk has been substantially reduced” as Republicans stand their ground, Mr. Galston said. Even Mr. Boehner has found it hard this week to get an agreement with the Republicans he ostensibly leads, he added.

Vin Weber, a Republican strategist and former congressman, said Mr. Obama could be hurt by the summer’s saga even though his position in the debt-limit debate — for a balanced package of spending cuts and revenue increase — is more popular than Republicans’ demands for deep spending cuts only, and a reshaping of Medicare and Medicaid.

“I think that his position on the issue is more broadly shared than Republicans would like to think, but he is damaging his leadership image because people don’t see him solving the problem,” Mr. Weber said.

“I’m not saying the president has an easy task ahead of him and he can do it at the snap of his fingers,” Mr. Weber added, in reference to Congressional Republicans’ hard line. “I’m just saying in the end the failure to solve this problem is going to weigh more heavily on him than on anybody in Congress.”

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=227aa8daf3732b29276c5e448afb19e1

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