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Opinion

October 11, 2013

Obama has a Solomonic riddle

WASHINGTON, D.C. — In summer 2011, as the debt ceiling loomed, Barack Obama saw his predicament in Solomonic terms. He was the president, charged with safeguarding the national economy. Republicans threatening default therefore had the leverage. They might have been prepared to split the baby. Obama was not willing to — like the true mother, he couldn’t — let that happen.

“There’s no doubt that the challenge we had here was ultimately I and [Treasury Secretary] Tim Geithner were responsible for averting another financial meltdown,” Obama later told Bob Woodward. “And so my interest in not playing chicken, or seeing any miscalculation here that leads to a default, was profound.”

Two long years later, the presidential calculus is transformed. It boils down to: He has to be willing to split the baby in order to save it, or, more precisely, to prevent future baby-splitting.

In the administration’s sadder-but-wiser view, the no-negotiation-over-the-debt-ceiling line must be drawn brightly, once and for all, in order to avert a never-ending cascade of extortionist episodes. Otherwise, Obama and his successors will be subject to incessant, escalating demands for concessions. Better to edge up to, or even leap off of, the cliff of default disaster now than be saddled with it forevermore.

“The president has made clear that the era of threatening default has to be over,” White House economic adviser Gene Sperling said at a Politico Playbook breakfast Monday.

The White House is serious about not blinking — to a somewhat unsettling degree. It was disconcerting, during the lead-up to calamity in 2011, to hear administration officials so forthright about the ultimate weakness of their position. Now, my discomfort is reversed.

Has the administration over-learned the lessons of 2011? Is it being unhelpfully dogmatic in its refusal to negotiate? Don’t Republicans — particularly House Speaker John Boehner -- need a face-saving bonbon to dangle in front of colleagues and base voters?

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