Go Read Obama's 2006 Debt Ceiling Speech

A blog about business and economics.
Oct. 9 2013 11:08 AM

It's Worth Actually Reading Obama's 2006 Debt Ceiling Speech

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When I was young and irresponsible ...

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

Barack Obama's 2006 vote against raising the debt ceiling has achieved something like totemic status among the hypocrisy-obsessed people of the world. It was a silly thing of him to do. But it's genuinely worth taking the time to read the statement he made about his vote at the time. Not because it's an insightful piece of statesmanship, but because it's so silly.

Here in the first graf, he says that thanks to the Bush tax cuts the deficit is too high and that thanks to Bush's determination to extend the Bush tax cuts, he proposes future deficits that are too high:

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. Over the past 5 years, our federal debt has increased by $3.5 trillion to $8.6 trillion. That is ‘‘trillion’’ with a ‘‘T.’’ That is money that we have borrowed from the Social Security trust fund, borrowed from China and Japan, borrowed from American taxpayers. And over the next 5 years, between now and 2011, the President’s budget will increase the debt by almost another $3.5 trillion.
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Then he sort of drones on for a while about the evils of budget deficits, making a bunch of overstated claims on this subject. He also discusses some of the deficit-reducing measures that he favors. Then he closes with a non-sequitur:

Increasing America’s debt weakens us domestically and internationally. Leadership means that ‘‘the buck stops here.’’ Instead, Washington is shifting the burden of bad choices today onto the backs of our children and grandchildren. America has a debt problem and a failure of leadership. Americans deserve better.
I therefore intend to oppose the effort to increase America’s debt limit.

This is just rank demagoguery. As Obama himself explained yesterday, it's simply not the case that increasing the debt limit causes the United States to owe more money. The gap between revenue and expenditures exists one way or another. Lifting the statutory debt ceiling simply allows that gap to exist without causing secondary and tertiary economic disruptions.

All in all, a pretty ridiculous display. But note what Obama doesn't do—attempt to hold the country hostage in order to advance a policy agenda. To use a technical term, what Obama's doing here is bullshitting. The debt ceiling bill has majority support in both houses and is clearly going to pass. Rather than doing the right thing and voting "yes," Obama has decided to make a "no" vote and then deliver a speech denouncing George W. Bush's fiscal policy. But he's not organizing a filibuster. The fact that the bill passed the Senate 52-48 is a huge tell. Nothing passes the Senate with 52 votes if the minority party is actually trying to stop it from passing. Obama didn't demand the partial repeal of the Bush tax cuts as the price for his debt ceiling vote because he didn't demand anything as his price for his debt ceiling vote. There was no negotiation, no demand, no effort to block passage, and actually no effort to do anything at all. It was just a forum for silly speeches.

It's worth emphasizing that this exact path is very much available to the GOP. They could allow up-or-down floor votes on a clean debt ceiling in both the House and the Senate, and it would pass both with Democratic votes. Then Republicans could all give Obama-style speeches wailing and moaning about the evils of Democrats. That's what Obama did, and that's what the GOP leadership is currently defining as "surrender" to the White House.

Matthew Yglesias is the executive editor of Vox and author of The Rent Is Too Damn High.