Sensing Lack of Leverage, Obama Takes His Ball and Goes Home

President Obama is trying to play tough on the debt ceiling. One may say he’s even doing his best Dirty Harry impression. Go ahead Republicans, make my day.

The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein helpfully compiled a list of Obama’s recent rhetoric on the issue:

On Dec. 5, he went to the Business Roundtable and said: “We are not going to play that game again next year. We’ve got to break that habit before it starts.”

On the 19th, he held a news conference where he was no less emphatic. “I’ve put forward a very clear principle: I will not negotiate around the debt ceiling.”

On Jan.1, he gave a statement on the fiscal cliff deal. “While I will negotiate over many things,” he said, “I will not have another debate with this Congress over whether or not they should pay the bills.”

On the 4th, he gave a radio address in which he repeated the message. “One thing I will not compromise over is whether or not Congress should pay the tab for a bill they’ve already racked up,” he said.

Unfortunately, it’s tough to believe such rhetoric from a guy who just six years ago said, “The fact that we are here today to debate raising America’s debt limit is a sign of leadership failure. It is a sign that the U.S. Government can’t pay its own bills. It is a sign that we now depend on ongoing financial assistance from foreign countries to finance our Government’s reckless fiscal policies.”

So if you’re following Obama’s evolution on the issue – in 2006 he believed that raising the debt ceiling was a sign that the U.S. can’t pay its bills because it was indicative of out of control spending habits that was forcing the government to borrow from future generations. Now, in 2013, Obama says that not raising the debt ceiling means the U.S. can’t pay its bills because, well, he’s in charge and he says so. (Hat tip to Allahpundit for highlighting the sharp contrast)

Forgive us if we’ve been less than convinced by either of Obama’s incompatible statements. He made one statement to lay the groundwork for election by painting himself as a deficit hawk and the other to try and stop himself from negotiating.

Nevertheless, it’s clear that President Obama is absolutely intent on trying to get Republicans to believe that he will absolutely, positively not negotiate on the debt limit this time around. No way. No how. And his method thus far has been to make as many statements as possible to paint himself into a corner. He’s been so clear about his stance and repeated it so often that to go back and actually negotiate now would simply show himself to be weak.

President Obama was at it again in yesterday’s press conference.

“We’ve got to break the habit of negotiating through crisis over and over again,” he said. “And now is as good a time as any, at the start of my second term.”

It was an odd statement to make given that the habit he was referring to was one of his own creation. Indeed, the crisis was as well. That’s because there should have been no need for last minute scrambling on the debt limit. Months before the federal government was scheduled to bump up against its borrowing limit a bipartisan panel of lawmakers was at work to create a plan to raise the ceiling and cut spending. That didn’t work. With plenty of time still left to go President Obama and John Boehner picked up the baton in an attempt to hash out a “grand bargain” of deficit reduction.

And they nearly succeeded. Just as they were about to reach the finish line on a sweeping package that would have raised taxes, reformed entitlements and cut spending, President Obama got cold feet. In a move he knew would sabotage the deal he demanded an additional $400 billion in tax increases – a bridge that Boehner, nor his caucus, could cross.

It wasn’t the last time Speaker Boehner would feel betrayed when negotiating with the White House. Most recently, in one-on-one negotiations over the fiscal cliff, President Obama agreed with Boehner on a modest increase in the Medicare retirement age before ultimately taking entitlement reform off the table altogether.

The unpredictability exasperated Boehner. He’s since eschewed closed-door negotiations with the White House and has promised to proceed under “regular order” –  introducing bills in the House, sending them to the Senate, and then conferencing to work out the details. “Regular order works best,” Boehner said.

And if Boehner is true to his word then President Obama is right – he won’t negotiate. But not because he doesn’t want to, but because by and large he’ll be cut out of the process…exactly where he belongs.