Power Centers

Obama Defuses Default Bomb As Tea Party Changes Re-Election Landscape

President Obama walks past Vice President Joe Biden and aide Dan Pfeiffer in the briefing room Sunday. i i

President Obama walks past Vice President Joe Biden and aide Dan Pfeiffer in the briefing room Sunday. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
President Obama walks past Vice President Joe Biden and aide Dan Pfeiffer in the briefing room Sunday.

President Obama walks past Vice President Joe Biden and aide Dan Pfeiffer in the briefing room Sunday.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Assuming the debt-ceiling deal reached Sunday is approved by rank and file members of both parties in the Senate and House, some fairly ugly firsts will be averted.

The nation won't have it's first-ever default on its financial obligations, with likely consequences both devastating and unpredictable for an already listless economy, despite what default deniers have said.

Also, President Obama won't be the first president forced to run the dubious experiment of campaigning for re-election with a fresh national default on his resume. He won't be the first president to have a default happen on his watch, period.

It's hard to overstate the damage such an unprecedented fiscal failure would likely have done not just to the economy but also to national psyche. Americans, after all, still view themselves as living in a global economic dynamo and the world's most successful democracy. A default caused by political stalemate could have changed that self-image incalculably.

Maybe Obama could get re-elected with a default under his belt. But it certainly would've increased the already considerable challenges facing him because of high unemployment, housing foreclosures and other spurs to economic anxiety.

While some polls suggested voters would blame congressional Republicans more if there were a default, it would be much easier for those same voters to blame the familiar face in the Oval Office than the mostly unknown mass of Capitol Hill lawmakers.

So Obama appears to have dodged the worst-case scenario for his re-election campaign: an economy-wrenching default. The deal keeps him in the game.

He also got Republicans to concede on the notion of another debt ceiling fight next year.

Obama and congressional Democrats couched their resistance to another debt-ceiling fight as a desire to keep further uncertainties from casting clouds over the economy.

But the political dimension was readily apparent to just about everyone. Democrats saw themselves as politically vulnerable if they were forced to push for a debt ceiling increase in an election year. They could easily envision the ads that would be run against them. Those fears have now been quieted.

Obama can also point to as a positive his willingness to compromise. The independent voters vital to his re-election hopes have said in repeated surveys that they want more political compromise that brings results.

So Obama can boast of being a great compromiser.

Of course, one person's compromise is another's appeasement. A downside in the deal for Obama is that liberals charge that he conceded entirely too much to Republicans.

After all, Republicans got a ton of spending cuts, Democrats got none of the tax increases they were looking for, while Obama put changes to reduce the costs of Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security on the table.

Expressing the view of many progressives, economist and columnist Paul Krugman wrote:

It is, of course, a political catastrophe for Democrats, who just a few weeks ago seemed to have Republicans on the run over their plan to dismantle Medicare; now Mr. Obama has thrown all that away. And the damage isn't over: There will be more choke points where Republicans can threaten to create a crisis unless the president surrenders, and they can now act with the confident expectation that he will.

Some things are worth disappointing your political base to avoid, and default is one of them, is what Obama appears to be signaling.

On the other side of the aisle, that deal can only be read as a significant achievement for the tea party movement.

As numerous Republicans have noted in recent days, the whole tenor of the fiscal discussion in Washington has changed since last year, and that's because of the tea party movement.

The nation has moved, in a little over two years, from serial attempts at large government stimulus spending to kick-start the economy, to a debate over the best ways to reduce deficits and the national debt.

Whatever one might think of them, it has to be acknowledged that it was the tea party-linked lawmakers who have served as the steel in the spine, the Lady Macbeth, to congressional Republican leadership.

The contours of the agreement — the emphasis on spending cuts without revenue increases and the inclusion of an enforcement mechanism — are a result of the tea party lawmakers' willingness to take the nation to the brink of default, all the while maintaining pressure on their own leadership.

Unless there's some dramatic event that we can't now foresee that changes the focus, it appears the tea party has guaranteed that the 2012 election won't only be a referendum on how Obama has handled the economy.

Because of the tea party's new power in American politics, the 2012 campaign is also shaping up to be a fierce contest over not whether to reduce deficits and debt — that's now a given — but the best and quickest ways to do so, with "best" being a value judgment based on one's political ideology.

A presidential and congressional cycle that was supposed to be all about jobs is now about not only that but also the best way for the U.S. to address its long-term debt issues. That's a significant change.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.