On the Debt-Ceiling Blues and “Putting Politics Aside” (Not)

Nice job Mr. President. Well-spoken. In many respects, a splendid piece of political rhetoric – especially in pitching to independents. Except for the self-contradictory part about “putting politics aside.”

Washington DC politicians (including the president) don’t “put politics aside.” Ever. Americans generally understand that politicians don’t ever put politics aside. Lawyers don’t put law aside. Lumberjacks don’t put lumber aside. It’s an empty phrase – “putting politics aside” – and excessive reliance upon it has diminishing returns, even with independents.

The president’s effectiveness in pitching to independents is a function of poll-tested political rhetoric. “Compromise.” “Oil companies.” “Corporate jets.” “Millionaires and billionaires.” “Balanced approach.” He may well have compelling campaign themes here – but this is the opposite of “putting politics aside.”

(Okay, an aside: corporate jets. Please. That tax break, called accelerated depreciation, was part of the stimulus package overwhelmingly supported, and still ardently defended, by Democrats, which was then re-authorized and signed by President Obama. Harping on tax breaks for “corporate jets” – when you voted for it before you voted for it – may be great campaign rhetoric, but it grows wearisome, and seems a bit disingenuous, as substantive debt ceiling dialogue.)

(Okay, another aside: “Millionaires and billionaires” – a frankly brilliant abbreviation for ginning up class resentment during a recession.  I’m sympathetic to 7- and 10-figure income people paying more taxes. Good heavens, who couldn’t be? But the screeching notion one hears too often that Republicans are some sort of obtuse cabal determined to “protect” “millionaires and billionaires” from any tax increase is absurd. Republican concern with respect to the top marginal tax rate is not about Bill Gates and Warren Buffet. It’s about the huge number of small businesses that would be ensnared by this tax increase – at a moment when economic recovery will have very much to do with the viability of small businesses – as the president himself acknowledges. Now maybe Republicans need to “compromise” on some tax issues – indeed, maybe they need to couple some revenue enhancements with targeted breaks for small business (win-win?) – but to continue this bizarre demonization of Republicans for protecting rich people at everyone else’s expense fundamentally misunderstands the larger issue.)

(Okay, one last aside before I get to my point: this one I’m not sure about, and I welcome clarification from those of you who know and care more about the minutiae of this debt-ceiling issue – but did the president’s nose grow when he invoked catastrophe from “default”? There is, I believe, a critical difference in defaulting on our debt obligations versus not being able to pay for everything. All that apocalypse conjured by the president isn’t really a prospect. Worst case scenario: we can’t pay for some government functions, but under no circumstance would we default on our debt obligations, fail to pay out social security and Medicare, fail on payments to veterans, or any of the horrific scenarios referenced by the president. Please enlighten me. I want to know whether the president, you know, misspoke, or whether he, you know, is trying to scare seniors.)

With apologies for the asides, here’s my real point: the system is working. Divided government is working. The Asian markets appear convinced nothing terrible will happen in America. Our elected representatives are very busy developing and promoting competing plans that will be debated. That is good. There should be genuine debate about the trade-off between spending and taxes. There should be a genuine debate about long-term versus short-term fixes. There should be a genuine debate about tax increases during a recession.

Americans get to see that debate most robustly precisely when there is “divided government.” And sometimes “divided government” begins to look like “dysfunctional government” only because it takes some time to fully ventilate these debates and develop a consensus. But it’s not “dysfunctional” at all.

Let me emphasize this: nothing “reckless” has happened – except the rhetoric. This is messy and beautiful democracy. There will be consequences. There will be winners and losers. The American people will process all of this and vote accordingly in due course. That’s how it works. And we’ve all learned a great deal more about debt ceilings, deficits, spending and taxes than we would have without divided government.

I’m fed up with politicians and pundits telling me Americans are fed up with Washington. Nonsense. We’re all learning, and the ever truer terms of the debate are coming into sharper relief. That’s how it works. That’s democracy.

(Okay, one last aside, with apologies: I’m a bit bewildered that the president says a six-month hike in the debt-ceiling limit cannot possibly be part of a “balanced approach” or a “compromise”– when he noted in his own defense that President Reagan signed debt-ceiling increases 18 times – that is, roughly, just under every six months of Reagan’s presidency. Am I missing something? Is the president primarily concerned to push any further debt-ceiling debate beyond the 2012 elections? Good politics Mr. President.)


16 Responses to On the Debt-Ceiling Blues and “Putting Politics Aside” (Not)

  1. lbwoodgate says:


    we borrow about 33% of the revenue we need to currently pay our bills. If we fail to pay ANY bills our credit ratings is going suffer and the ability to borrow will diminish. But the worst thing from all of this is how the highly volatile markets will over react to all of this and the speculative dumping of stocks will create financial hardships for small investors like me that have already lost a ton in the market over the last few years.

    Your assurances that “nothing “reckless” has happened lacks credibility. Time will perhaps tell but right now the state of this and other global economies are walking on eggshells and the last thing we need is the uncertainty of the U.S.’s ability to pay its obligations. Not just for the next year or two but for the foreseeable future. Can you make such guarantees based purely on your perception of things and your belief in a “divided government” debating long-term versus short-term fixes? I see less “debating” and more unrepentant threats that make that divided government more under siege than working things out.

  2. Republican concern with respect to the top marginal tax rate is not about Bill Gates and Warren Buffet. It’s about the huge number of small businesses that would be ensnared by this tax increase – at a moment when economic recovery will have very much to do with the viability of small businesses – as the president himself acknowledges.

    Is that why they’re not even willing to close tax loopholes? If they’re not willing to do so, they are siding with the millionaires and billionaires that have the money to hire brilliant accountants to find those loopholes.

    Economics isn’t my thing. Frankly, most of it goes over my head. All I know is that cutting spending should go along with raising revenue. It’s “compromise,” a word that has been treated like an expletive lately.

    • Hey Spinny. I don’t disagree with you, especially concerning the need for c*mpr*m*s*. I think that will happen, but c*mpr*m*s* typically happens at the end of protracted wrangling — and my essential point is that the wrangling is a healthy thing. And frankly, if it doesn’t happen, it will be because of political calculations on both sides, and the American people will in due course exercise their political supremacy. Good for democracy. Messy, but good. My other point, also a political one, is to take issue with the absurd notion that Republicans are “playing politics” and Democrats, including the president, aren’t. That’s manifestly false.

      • I think I see your point. If he pulled the 14th amendment card, that could be political suicide. I would have done it after they rejected his bend over deal.

        And 😆 @ “c*mpr*m*s*.”

  3. Snoring Dog Studio says:

    Messy and beautiful, maybe, but I still wanna kick some Republicans in the balls. Present company excluded.

    • Ouch! (And thanks for the ball pass!)

      • Snoring Dog Studio says:

        Yeah, I was left without substantive comments at this late evening hour. I did read this post this morning, got upset, then re-read it this evening. I can’t find fault with much you say here. Politics… I could never live in that world.

        By the way, just to taunt you a bit more… I actually like Rebecca Black’s new tune, My Moment.

        • You’re hilarious! Now I really am obliged to double back and listen to the new Black tune.

          And by the way, I thought you wouldn’t like this post, as you have been disturbed with Republicans lately. I was hoping simply to level the “playing politics” playing field. Thanks for re-reading! 🙂

  4. Lou says:

    Nice post Kendrick!

  5. Terrance H. says:


    It seems to me that the bill introduced by Senator Reid is everything the Right wanted. It includes no new revenue and it makes cuts where Republicans wanted the cuts. The one thing it doesn’t do is fall short of increasing the debt ceiling past the next elections, which the Republicans don’t want. And why? Because they want the debate to happen all over again, only this time nearer to the 2012 elections.

    So, honestly, who is really playing politics?

    • Both. Exactly my point. Why would Obama note how casually the debt ceiling has been raised — 18 times by Reagan — and yet insist now that no deal, i.e., all of that catastrophe, is better than a short-term deal of precisely the sort that has been par for the course many times? Because he doesn’t want to debate these issues again before the election. Politics. Which isn’t a dirty word in my lexicon. Just what politicians do. Whereupon the American people pass judgment — or in some cases, dramatically forswear any further allegiance to their former party. 🙂

      • Terrance H. says:

        Perhaps this is being overly-generous, but maybe Obama honestly cares about the country and doesn’t want to put our financial markets through this uncertainty yet again in another few months….

        Nothing worth doing can be done in such a climate. Let’s put this behind us for now and focus on getting this country back to work.

  6. Snoring Dog Studio says:

    I’m learning more and more that there are a lot of other players in this game (Standard & Poor’s, for instance). And, frankly, too much of what’s being recommended by either party is purely self-serving — yes, it has something to do with politics but it also has something to do with greed and self-interest. Along the way, people like you and me, trying to make a living on shrinking wages, are being forgotten. The word “jobs” has disappeared from the dialogue while the two parties rush toward throwing rose petals on the path to re-election. Robert Reich says it much better than me. http://robertreich.org/

    • Terrance H. says:

      I’m just not seeing political games being played by the Left. I’m sorry, but I don’t.

      In order to believe they are playing games, you have to accept that this uncertainty – which, mind you, will occur again in six-months if Republicans get their way – does nothing to harm financial markets around the world. And if you believe that, then you’ve been hitting the sauce a bit too hard, if you don’t mind my saying so.

      The Democrats, I firmly believe, are trying to stablize the global economy while the Republicans are holding it hostage. The Left has given them everything they’ve demanded, save another debate and bout of uncertainty in six-months time.

      From where I’m sitting, only the Right is playing games with the lives of the American people they purport to care so much about.

  7. Steve Ball says:

    I liked this blog, Kendrick. I think BHO is trying to scare the seniors with the threat of not delivering on SS and Medicare. If we don’t raise the debt ceiling it will be his judgement that other things need to be paid before these lifelines for seniors. I don’t think he would ever not pay these entitlements. He loses a lot of votes if he does. I use the term entitlements loosely here.

  8. John Myste says:

    Nice job. Not on this post specifically. I only skimmed through the text, but on all posts. I skimmed through other text also. I think I am a fan.

    I think I disagree with the post, but that does not matter. You said it so well and the idea is very original, and that matters more than you being right, aka, agreeing with me.

    Time-permitting, I will read the post sometime and verify my initial sense. I love the way you express yourself and the fact that you are an original thinker.

    I think I love that. I only skimmed posts, after all.

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