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Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Presiding over a Debt Precipice

In the context of a rapidly approaching deadline on increasing the ceiling on U.S. Government debt, Barak Obama found himself rebuffing pressure from anti-tax “Tea Party” Republicans in the U.S. House while needing enough non-partisan credibility for his warning of an impending economic catastrophe to be believed by the citizenry and Congress. That is to say, Obama’s failure to stand back as the Democrats and Republicans in Congress duked it out on spending cuts and tax increases mitigated his stature or credibility as Presider in Chief. An editorial in the New York Times refers to this role of the president as "the utimate guardian of the constitutional order." To preside is to be oriented to the viability of the whole. This means stepping in when the system itself is at risk. Partisan involvement compromises the ability to function in a failsafe capacity, as the "ultimate guardian."

Concretely, as the deadline on raising the debt-ceiling approached, someone with credibility was needed to stand up and get the attention of the partisans to say: We are running out of time. You need to come to an agreement. Taking and advancing one of the sides of the dispute detracted from Barak Obama’s ability to act as the party oriented to the deadline itself. It left the deadline itself vulnerable because the role designed to protect it was also interested in advancing a certain agreement (and killing another). I contend, therefore, that Obama’s priorities were at odds with that of how his office is designed to function in the system. The system itself is left vulnerable.

By analogy, a fire inspector is hired to sit in a crowded theatre to keep an eye on the building in case one of the special effects of the play causes a fire. Keeping an eye on the theatre itself, including backstage and the balcony, is less interesting than watching the plot unfold on stage. Taking the side of the protagonist, the inspector is diverted from noticing the smoke at the back of the balcony. The theatre, and its occupants, are at risk because the inspector does not reach the stage in time. To be sure, watching a play is more interesting, but the inspector role is designed to look out for the people as a whole—indeed, the theatre itself.

Now, say the theatre is host to a debate, and that the inspector steps on stage to take part in it. Not only is he or she distracted from keeping an eye out for sabotage, people in the audience favoring the other side on the debate might not believe the inspector’s eventual announcement that they must leave the building.

In 2010, Barak Obama remarked to the press after a partisan meeting with Congressional leaders, “Being bipartisan cannot mean that Democrats give up everything they believe in, find the handful of things that Republicans have been advocating for, and we do those things, and then we have bipartisanship.” Even as his statement sounds fair, to make it from a partisan position from the presidential podium undercuts the presiding nature of the Presidency. How might Republicans have reacted to the President had he then announced an emergency and indicated what needed to be done to avert disaster? While his detractors would probably not doubt his veracity, in the face of an impending disaster every bit of credibility that the Presidency itself is capable of is necessary.

In the context of the debt-ceiling showdown in July 2011, the president’s pushback against the House Republicans compromised his warning that “we are now in the eleventh hour; we don’t have time for smoke and mirrors.” Whereas the warning is oriented to the deadline, the pushback was partisan in nature. What would prevent Republicans from assuming that the “smoke and mirrors” comment was just as partisan (and thus could be safely relegated or dismissed)? The president would have been better advised to let the Democrats in the U.S. Senate fight the partisan battle with the Republicans in the House while he, the presider in chief, saved his political and reputational capital to act as an alarm clock, for there is no other than the president. In effect, wanting it both ways (pushing one of two sides and sounding the alarm) is like putting a pillow over the clock. In the case of the debt ceiling, America could not afford sleeping in. In allowing our presidents to be so partisan, We the People rack up tremendous systemic risk without realizing it. It is as though we have forgotten the old question, Who is watching the store? We simply assume the status quo, wherein the store's very existence is not in question.


Helene Cooper and Carl Hulse, “Two Parties Join Together, Then Resume Divided Ways,” New York Times, February 9, 2010. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/10/us/politics/10obama.html?hpw

Eric A. Posner and Adrian Vermeule, "Obama Should Raise the Debt Ceiling on His Own," New York Times (July 22, 2011). http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/22/opinion/22posner.html?_r=1&hp