INDEBTED JANUARY 14, 2013
“A prince, so long as he keeps his subjects united and loyal, ought not to mind the reproach of cruelty; because with a few examples he will be more merciful than those who, through too much mercy, allow disorders to arise, from which follow murders or robberies; for these are wont to injure the whole people…”
--N. Machiavelli, The Prince, Chapter XVII, “Concerning Cruelty and Clemency, and Whether It Is Better To Be Loved Than Feared.”
President Obama seems to think that you win by demonstrating that you’re a more reasonable person than your opponents. It didn’t work too badly, I’ll grant, as an electoral strategy in the 2012 election. But when governing it is generally preferable to demonstrate that you’re willing to be an even bigger son-of-a-bitch than your opponents are. This wisdom has been widely disseminated for at least 500 years (see above), but it seems to elude the White House. Maybe we should blame the unwholesome influence of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, but for whatever reason this president often seems more interested in getting into heaven than in getting his way.
Case in point: The Obama White House and the Treasury department couldn’t wait to tell the world that it would never, ever, stoop to minting a $1 trillion platinum coin should Congress refuse to raise the debt ceiling. As TNR’s Jon Cohn notes, the White House thinks it’s smart strategy to remove this option because it keeps pressure on the GOP to do the right thing. But what if the GOP continues to maintain that the “right thing” is to force government shutdown and/or default in order to extract more spending cuts? “I think it is possible that we would shut down the government to make sure President Obama understands that we’re serious,” House Republican Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R.-Washington, told Politico. The way to confront such fanaticism is to demonstrate that you can be pretty fanatical yourself. I’m not saying Obama should affirmatively threaten to short-circuit the process by minting the platinum coin or resorting to some other 14th-Amendment power play. But to promise not to is itself reckless, insofar as it increases the likelihood that GOP hard-liners will plunge the economy back into recession.
What does President Obama do instead? He holds a press conference saying, once again, that he will not let Republicans “collect a ransom in exchange for not crashing the U.S. economy.” The more Obama says this, the less believable it sounds. We know that Obama never means it when he says he’s done negotiating. If he didn’t mean it when all the leverage was on his side during the fiscal-cliff negotiations, then how can he possibly mean it when it isn’t? At this point the only leverage Obama has is to keep Republicans guessing about whether he’ll do something unreasonable to maintain this country’s creditworthiness should he be faced with no other choice. The platinum-coin gimmick is not, I’ll grant you, a great option, but it is far too soon for Obama to decide he doesn’t need it. Indeed, it smacks of narcissism. Obama's choice between maintaining a spotless reputation for integrity and maintaining a functioning economy ought to be a no-brainer. Alas, it is not. Mister President, this is no time to go all Norwegian on us.