Whatever Happened to ‘No negotiations’ with Debt Ceiling ‘Hostage Takers’?


President Obama ran for president promising change. What his backers didn’t realize was that he wasn’t talking about changing America for the better. He was talking about changing his position whenever he found himself in a confrontation with Republicans. There’s a reason that beginning with Obama’s 2008 campaign, and on through the past five years of his presidency, we have gotten used to a presidential behavior called “pivoting.”

Pivoting, as applied to President Obama and his administration, is a euphemism for surrendering quickly on a seeming position of principle, strength or tradition, and moving in an entirely different, and often treacherous direction that betrays what before appeared to be a principle.

With the US having just lost two wars in the Middle East, for example, last year the president announced that he was “pivoting” away from more war to shifting America’s military to Asia. That hasn’t worked out so well either, so I’m guessing we’ll probably soon see a new pivot, shifting the military focus perhaps to South America?

Back in 2009 and 2010, when the economy was tanking, and President Obama was spending so much time promoting his health care “reform” agenda, on multiple occasions he and his press office would announce that he was “pivoting” to jobs, or to dealing with the unemployment crisis. These pivots wouldn’t amount to anything, because later he’d pivot to another issue and drop the focus on jobs.

Pivoting, it turns out, is really a way of saying that he doesn’t have any real commitment to some issue, but is going to pretend to focus on it for a while.

It’s characteristic of a guy who really doesn’t stand for anything, but tries to look like he does.

That is dangerous in the present moment, with a hard core of Congressional Tea Party fanatics leading the Republicans in the House in extorting the government with the threat of default by refusing raise the national debt limit — a bizarre situation that no other country faces because no other country has such a law requiring the government to keep its total borrowing below an arbitrary limit set annually by Congress.

Up to now, President Obama had claimed, seemingly with conviction, that he would not allow the US government and economy to be “held hostage” to the debt ceiling. He has said repeatedly during this manufactured crisis, again seemingly with conviction, that he would not negotiate with Republicans on anything to do with the budget until they passed a “clean bill” raising the debt ceiling, with no budget cut amendments or conditions attached.

Now he appears to be “pivoting” away from that position, with the White House and the president saying that he is “likely” to accept a proposal by House Republicans to raise the debt ceiling just enough to keep the government solvent for six more weeks, during which time, the president has to agree to discuss ways to “cut spending” and during which time the government would still remain closed (of course excluding the Pentagon, the intelligence agencies and the rest of the national security state).

So much for refusing to negotiate while the government and economy are being held hostage.

If this were an airplane hijacking, with some wackos or terrorists holding a planeload of passengers on the tarmac demanding to have the plane refueled and a $10 million dollars strapped to the landing gear, Obama, despite a “no bargaining with hostage-takers” pledge, would be fueling the plane and negotiating the size of the cash in the hostage-taker’s package.

There is a very real danger here. For years, President Obama, who as a candidate in September 2008, addressing a convention of the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), vowed never to cut Social Security, never to cut the cost-of-living adjustment to benefits and never to raise the retirement age. Now he seems ready to “pivot” and do exactly that.

During the 2008 campaign Obama denounced Republican presidential candidate John McCain for “suggesting that the answer to the growing pressure on Social Security might be to cut cost-of-living adjustments or raise the retirement age.” He promised, “I will do neither,” and called instead for raising the cap on the level of wages subject to the FICA payroll tax.

In recent years, however, once securely in office, President Obama has “pivoted” away form that promise, talking instead of a “Grand Bargain” in which Social Security and Medicare would be put on the chopping block, with future benefits to retirees being trimmed, the retirement age increased, and with Medicare too getting cut back.

How convenient for this whirling dervish of a president. With Republicans, who since the creation of both Social Security and Medicare have been seeking to gut or kill these two key progressive programs, holding a debt ceiling gun to his head demanding that he join them in cutting them, in order to “save” the US economy from a default on its trillions of dollars in bond debt, he has a perfect excuse to do what will make his Wall Street backers happy. As for the vast majority of Americans who oppose this heist, he can claim that the Republicans made him do it. Why would he refuse to bargain while being held hostage? He wants to be a hostage.

A man of principle could never do such a thing. He’d stare down the Republican hostage takers, who are widely seen by most Americans for the extortionists they are, and call their bluff on the threatened default. If they let the country go over the cliff, he’d stand on principle, cite the 14th Amendment, which in Section 4 requires him to insure that “The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned.” Based on that amendment, he would just order the Treasury Department to continue honoring US debt obligations as before, ignoring the debt ceiling (which is after all simply a law passed by Congress in 1917), and he’d dare the House to impeach him.

But the president is a pivoter, not a man of principle, and he is pivoting once again.

Already as the October 17 deadline approaches, at which point we’re led to believe the US Treasury will not be able to redeem bonds coming due, the stage is being set, with the president ready to accept a short-term rise in the debt ceiling in return for his willingness to discuss unspecified short and long-term cuts in federal spending.

It’s highly unlikely that the president would go this route, only to make a few small cuts in government operations, and then have to face the crisis again in another six weeks. Far more likely is that he’ll use this respite to strike that not-so-“Grand” Bargain that he has spoken of before, screwing the elderly with a cut in the inflation adjustment of benefits going forward, screwing younger workers with a significant cutback in future Social Security benefits and perhaps a requirement that they work more years in order to get them, and cutting back on Medicare, the “single payer” health program the US already has in place that has been providing medical care for the elderly and disabled for nearly half a century.

Only a massive campaign of protest by the public can prevent this sell-out by our endlessly pivoting president.

Dave Lindorff is a founding member of ThisCantBeHappening!, an online newspaper collective, and is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

Dave Lindorff is a founding member of ThisCantBeHappening!, an online newspaper collective, and is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

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