Between 6 p.m. Friday and 4 p.m. Sunday, the nation began a constitutional course correction. The current occupant’s vanity and naivete — a dangerous amalgam — are causing the modern presidency to buckle beneath the weight of its pretenses. And Congress is reasserting its responsibilities.
At his Friday news conference-cum-tantrum, President Barack Obama imperiously summoned congressional leaders to his presence: “I’ve told” them “I want them here at 11 a.m.” By Saturday, his administration seemed to be cultivating chaos by suddenly postulating a new deadline: The debt-ceiling impasse must end before Asian markets opened Sunday evening Eastern time, lest the heavens fall.
Those markets opened; the heavens held. The faux deadline, reportedly invoked at a Saturday White House meeting by Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, who should resign, inevitably seeped into the media and invited overseas panic, thereby risking the nation’s currency, for brief tactical advantage.
Amid these tawdry episodes, House Speaker John Boehner signaled constitutional sanity regained: “Congress will forge a responsible path forward.” Congress. Obama has marginalized himself.
Inordinate self-regard is an occupational hazard of politics and part of the job description of the rhetorical presidency, this incessant tutor. Still, upon what meat doth this our current Caesar feed that he has grown so great that he presumes to command leaders of a coequal branch of government? He once boasted (June 3, 2008) that he could influence the oceans’ rise; he must be disabused of comparable delusions about controlling Congress.
When he was a lecturer on constitutional law, he evidently skipped the separation of powers doctrine. But, then, because this doctrine impedes the progressives’ goal of unleashing untrammeled government, they have long loathed it: Woodrow Wilson, the first president to criticize the American founding, considered the separation of powers the Constitution’s “radical defect.”
It has, however, rescued the nation from Obama’s preference for a “clean” debt-ceiling increase that would ignore the onrushing debt tsunami. There are 87 reasons for Obama’s temporary conversion of convenience to the cause of spending restraint — the 87 House Republican freshmen. Their inflexibility astonishes and scandalizes Washington because it reflects the rarity of serene fidelity to campaign promises.
Obama — a demagogue for an age of smooth surfaces; Huey Long with a better tailor — pretended Friday to wonder whether Republicans “can say yes to anything.” Well.
House Republicans said yes to “cut, cap and balance.” Senate Democrats, who have not produced a budget in more than 800 days, vowed to work all weekend debating this. But Friday they voted to table it, thereby ducking a straightforward vote on the only debt-reduction plan on paper, the only plan debated, the only plan to receive Democratic votes.
Obama’s last venture into public specificity was his February budget, which proposed accelerating the nation’s descent into debt. It was rejected by the Senate 97-0.
Although histrionically impatient with Republicans’ refusal to accept certain measures, Obama insists he will “not accept” a debt-ceiling deal that does not increase income taxes. Surely this is the meaning of his July 11 words: “I do not want, and will not accept, a deal in which … I’m able to keep hundreds of thousands of dollars in additional income that I don’t need.”
To understand Republican distrust of him, consider, from the many examples of his paltering with the truth, his July 15 news conference, wherein he veered from the subject of the debt ceiling to say, “I’ve got three trade deals ready to go” yet they are “being held up because some folks don’t want to provide Trade Adjustment Assistance to people who may be displaced as a consequence of trade.” The facts are:
TAA, which has existed since 1962, enjoys bipartisan support. The 2009 stimulus increased it, supposedly temporarily, and it did revert to pre-stimulus levels in February. Now, however, Democrats suddenly insist that TAA’s stimulus levels be made permanent.
Obama’s wee mendacity about TAA illustrates the large stakes of the debt debate, which is a proxy for an epochal argument about the nature of American governance. Obama’s money gusher has driven federal spending from under 20 percent of GDP to almost 25 percent. Democrats consider this the new normal — until it becomes the base from which they launch their next surge of statism.
This fact refutes those who loftily dismiss the debt-ceiling debate as much ado about not very much. And those who are loftily contemptuous of today’s supposedly “dysfunctional” Washington have forgotten that the branches of government are supposed to be jealous rivals.
George Will is a columnist for The Washington Post Writers Group. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.