If all the polls are correct, if it’s really true that most Americans want the Republicans to knock off the dogma and put their country first, then logic suggests that President Obama has the upper hand in our ongoing debt crisis. After all, he’s the one who’s talking compromise – in his TV appeal to swing-voting independents last night, he quoted Thomas Jefferson: “Every man cannot have his way in all things” – whereas the Republicans continue to spew defiance, as evidenced last night by John Boehner’s TV pitch to his tea-party troops.And yet, if no deal is forged and America does indeed default on its loans next week, Obama may well take the biggest political hit.Yes, Obama. Not the Republicans.You may be wondering how such an outcome could be possible – given the American majority’s support for a deficit-reduction compromise, given the majority’s belief that Republicans should stop protecting their fat-cat friends and instead require them to sacrifice a little revenue for the common good – but such are the injustices of politics.I got to thinking about Obama’s serious political risks while watching his TV address – particularly when he announced that “we’re left with a stalemate,” and warned that we’re on the brink of a self-inflicted financial crisis: “For the first time in history, our country’s AAA credit rating would be downgraded, leaving investors around the world to wonder whether the United States is still a good bet. Interest rates would skyrocket on credit cards, on mortgages and on car loans, which amounts to a huge tax hike on the American people. We would risk sparking a deep economic crisis – this one caused almost entirely by Washington.”Here’s his political problem: In Washington, there is only one president. What happens in Washington sticks to the president, regardless of whether he’s right or wrong on the merits of the issue at hand. Obama is the player whom everybody knows. By contrast, millions of Americans have no idea who John Boehner is, so even though Boehner lied egregiously last night when he said that House Republicans have already passed a “bipartisan” debt-reduction deal (he was referring to the GOP’s symbolic vote for a balanced budget amendment to the U.S Constitution, which passed last week along partisan lines), he doesn’t really pay a political price for such rank dishonesty. He is not the face of Washington.
Obama is. If a president can’t tame his opponents, or crack heads en route to a deal, then he looks weaker for simply having failed.Most Americans are unaware that Congress has routinely voted to raise the debt ceiling a few dozen times in recent decades, notably when Ronald Reagan was voicing appeals similar to those made today by Obama. Most Americans are unaware that 130 congressional Republicans who recoil from raising the current debt ceiling had no problem raising the ceiling when George W. Bush was blowing a hole in the budget with his off-the-books wars and his unpaid-for Medicare prescription plan. Most Americans are unaware that some Senate Republicans were actually trying to help Obama forge a bipartisan solution to the current crisis – until the right-wing fringe went ballistic on them. (As Georgia Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss complained to reporters, “Talk radio has come out and just blasted us, using trumped-up numbers that are not accurate.”) But those are all nuances, whereas politics is reductive shorthand. All that matters is the end result. If America defaults on its bills for the first time in history, the shorthand will likely be that it happened on Barack Obama’s watch. The details won’t matter. You can almost smell the ’12 Republican TV ads, labeling Obama as “the first president to default America.”I’m loathe to quote Donald Trump on anything, but he does seem to have an instinctive grasp of the visceral realities of human nature. Conversing yesterday within the friendly confines of Fox News, he offered this take on the political impact of a credit default: “I don’t care about polls. When it comes time to default, (people)are not going to remember any of the Republicans’ names. They are going to remember in history books one name, and that’s Obama. They’re not going to be talking about Boehner or anybody else.”Hence the perverse genius of the Republicans’ political strategy. They’ve long signaled that taking down Obama would be their top priority. Crashing the economy (and making America an international laughingstock) may seem to be a tad extreme, tactically speaking, but we’re talking here about a party that has become hooked on its own radicalism. It certainly has no room for soothing words from Thomas Jefferson.If Obama takes the biggest hit for a default, the GOP will have accomplished part of its mission. And, hey, whoever said that politics was supposed to be fair?
The clock is rapidly ticking down as we dream of a last-ditch deal that will make things right…I’m speaking, of course, about the baseball trading deadline (4 p.m. Sunday), and the hopes of Phillies fans. A deal won’t help America pay its bills, but it would be a fine distraction indeed to land a right-handed power hitter who can bat fifth.