White House shifts in unpredictable debt debate

July 23, 2011 - 2:14 AM
Obama Debt Showdown

President Barack Obama makes a statement in the Brady Briefing Room at the White House in Washington, Friday, July 22, 2011 on the break down of debt ceiling talks. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

WASHINGTON (AP) — The roller-coaster debate over raising the nation's debt limit has forced the White House to explain away, brush aside or even ignore declarations by President Barack Obama and his top aides that no longer served much purpose in the unpredictable negotiations.

First, the White House wanted the debt ceiling vote separated from spending cuts. Now the administration likes them linked. Then, Obama adamantly vowed to reject any short-term deal to raise the borrowing limit. Now the White House says he could make an exception. And Obama pledged to meet with congressional leaders every day until a deal was reached. But the daily meetings stopped or at least disappeared from the president's schedule.

The White House shifts have been less a matter of flip-flops and more a case of unforeseen twists forcing the administration to reposition as the Aug. 2 deadline to prevent the U.S. from defaulting on its financial obligations draws ever closer. Friday evening, after anticipation of a deal had built all week, things fell apart when House Speaker John Boehner abruptly broke off the talks.

The White House willingness to change course underscores efforts to cast Obama as a reasonable and flexible compromiser in the face of Republican intransigence.

Perhaps the most notable shift from the administration has been on one of the most basic elements of the whole debate: Should an increase in the nation's borrowing limit be linked to cuts in government spending?

The president's opening position was a resounding no.

"We do not need to play chicken with our economy by linking the raising of the debt ceiling to anything," White House spokesman Jay Carney declared on April 11.

But within days, Obama himself signaled the start of the White House's shifting stance, saying in an interview with The Associated Press that raising the debt ceiling wasn't going to happen without some spending cuts.

Three months later, the White House has fully bowed to that political reality, not only acknowledging that Republicans would block an increase in debt ceiling unless spending cuts are attached but also promoting the benefits of the linkage.

"The dynamic that's created here, for better or for worse — and we think now for better — that has linked these two has focused attention and focused people's minds on the need to do something significant around deficit reduction," Carney said Wednesday.

The White House also has had to recalibrate its position on whether Obama would back a short-term increase in the debt limit in order to avoid a default.

At a July 11 news conference, Obama insisted a stopgap measure was not an option he would consider.

"The things that I will not consider are a 30-day or a 60-day or a 90-day or a 180-day temporary stopgap resolution to this problem," Obama said. "This is the United States of America, and we don't manage our affairs in three-month increments."

But as the Aug. 2 deadline for completing an agreement neared, the White House relaxed its total opposition to an interim measure. Now aides say Obama would approve a debt-limit increase for a couple of days, but only if a long-term deal was agreed upon and just needed time to work its way through the legislative process.

"That is a long way from the kind of six-month, nine-month, one-year extension, short-term extensions that have been discussed and which the president is unalterably opposed to," Carney said Thursday.

The ever-changing nature of the talks has even meant that Obama's straightforward pronouncement earlier this month that he would meet with lawmakers "every single day until we get this thing resolved" didn't have much of a shelf life.

While Obama and bipartisan congressional leaders did meet at the White House for five straight days, the talks reached a point that all sides recognized that the daily group meetings stopped being the best approach. In recent days, Obama has opted instead to meet with leaders from each party separately, or simply call them on the phone. After talks broke down Friday, Obama summoned congressional leaders to the White House for a meeting Saturday morning on what happens next.

Political analyst Darrell West of the Brookings Institution said the administration's willingness to adjust when the situation warrants could put the president at an advantage.

"Leaders have to adapt to changing circumstances," said West. "And if they don't, their rigidity undermines the political process."

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Julie Pace can be reached at http://twitter.com/jpaceDC.