The debt ceiling crisis could make or break the Biden presidency

He has puzzlingly yet to articulate what's at stake to and for the American public

US President Joe Biden arrives for a news conference following the G7 leaders summit in Hiroshima on Sunday. Bloomberg
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The political jockeying in Washington over the looming and terrifying US debt ceiling crisis simply defies explanation or is open to so many competing interpretations that it amounts to the same degree of impenetrability. Although the Republicans are forcing the crisis, this combination of recklessness and opacity doesn't speak well of either side among American political leaders.

Virtually everyone agrees that a debt default – which the Treasury Department has said could occur early next month – would be catastrophic and inexcusable. No one really doubts that actual default, in which the US government stopped paying debts that have already been accumulated by Congress, would throw investors, bondholders and much of the bedrock of international finance and trade into utter chaos.

There’s little doubt which side is authoring this flirtation with catastrophe. As soon as they emerged from the 2022 midterms with a razor-thin, approximately five-vote, majority in the House of Representatives, right-wing Republicans began demanding that the party use this sliver to demand huge spending cuts by threatening not to raise the debt ceiling (which limits the amount the Treasury can borrow to pay existing debts) until they receive as yet unspecified concessions. Democrats accurately call it hostage-taking.

Moreover, Kevin McCarthy was only able to secure his House Speakership by agreeing to a set of largely undisclosed commitments to the extreme right-wing faction, some of which had to do with committee assignments and power within House and party structures, but others also clearly involving creating a reckless confrontation over the debt ceiling.

It's cynical and irresponsible. But, politically, it's easy to see where the Republicans are going with this

Republican calculations are hardly mysterious: they're betting that the sitting president will get most of the blame for any ensuing financial crises. Moreover, several House Republicans have become extreme enough to practically welcome institution-destroying cataclysms. They've essentially been giving Mr McCarthy the choice of pursuing their agenda or being thrown out of his long-coveted leadership job, and President Joe Biden the choice between accepting huge concessions on domestic and social spending or a default.

It's cynical and highly irresponsible. But, politically, it's easy to see where the Republicans are going with this.

Mr Biden, on the other hand, appears a complete mystery. As I noted in these pages last September, he had an obvious and urgent duty to address the debt ceiling in the interregnum between the 2022 midterms and the new congressional session at the beginning of this year. Although he was then in a much better negotiating position to be arguing with conservative Democrats rather than the extremist Republicans he's dealing with now, he and the other Democrats inexplicably just let it slide.

Since then, his calculations have become even more mystifying.

For months, he flatly ruled out negotiating over the budget to secure a debt ceiling increase, but for the past several weeks he's been doing just that. It's wise to try to secure a rational agreement with the House, but his approach to these talks is not just old-fashioned and arguably out of touch, it's downright strange.

Mr McCarthy and his acolytes have been mobbing the media, spinning every conversation, and making sure that everyone paying attention in the country has heard the GOP point of view time and again. Much of what they say is unconvincing in the extreme, especially their supposedly motivating alarm, bordering on panic, over the supposedly out-of-control budget deficit and the debt. Virtually all of them voted, time and again, for large spending increases, and in many cases tax cuts too, under recent Republican presidents such as George W Bush and Donald Trump.

Mr Trump can be relied upon to bluntly give the game away every time. In a recent interview, he called for a debt default, and when it was pointed out that he had insisted on unconditional debt ceiling increases during his presidency, he said the reason for his casual reversal is, simply, that he isn't president anymore. He admitted that he's only worried about spending if Democrats are in charge of it and left little doubt that he would revert to his earlier pro-unconditional budget ceiling expansion stance instantly if he were back in office. And virtually all Republicans would rally around such a volte-face, just as they have always done.

Indeed, a number of Republicans are now calling for an increase in military and other spending, while ruling out any prospect of increasing taxation of Americans making more than $400,000 a year.

But while Republicans have been spinning furiously, and conducting a 21st-century news and social media blitz, Mr Biden has been virtually mum, following what looks like a distinctly 20th-century principle of not negotiating in public. And he's also been restraining his allies, who are becoming increasingly distraught that the other side has been left a virtually open public communications field to define the issue and the negotiations in the public mind.

The president’s strategy makes sense only if he has a trump card that no one has been able to identify yet, or is somehow correctly convinced that Republicans will bear most of the blame in the event of a calamity or that this relative and anachronistic silence somehow strengthens his bargaining hand. But as the days grow alarmingly short, suspicion is mounting that Mr Biden is mishandling this issue now, just as he did by inaction immediately after the midterms.

It almost seems as if there's something about the debt ceiling that defines his political skills and judgment. But it's a fight he can't afford to lose and there is no guarantee that anyone else will be held to account for the consequences.

Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee has urged him to give a major speech from the Oval Office laying out what's at stake to and for the American public. This isn't just a good idea, it's long overdue. He's got to make his case to the public immediately.

This issue may show Mr Biden to be finally, and disastrously, out of his depth or reveal the depth of his political cunning and sophistication.

A patchwork deal could yet postpone a real reckoning. But more probably, Mr Biden is approaching either his most impressive domestic victory or his most wretched, and avoidable, debacle.

Published: May 26, 2023, 5:00 AM