In the lead up to the start of President Obama’s series of speeches laying out his view of how to strengthen the economy going forward, some of the Washington-based challenges facing that very economy were on full display.
Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke recently warned Congress, for instance, that the continued uncertainties they have created through their fiscal fights threaten the same economy they claim to want to boost.
But Bernanke should be getting used to being Washington’s version of the mythical Cassandra. He is largely being ignored as partisan policymakers raised the specter of a government shutdown later this year as they staked out their positions for the fall’s debt-ceiling and budget battles.
When a reporter on Tuesday asked White House press secretary Jay Carney if the president was willing to abide a government shut down if congressional Republicans insisted on lower spending levels for programs Obama considers priorities, Carney didn’t exactly say no, but sought to throw the matter back into the lap of Republicans.
“Look, I think that you would have to ask Republicans about what their plan is for investing in America’s future,” Carney said.
When Carney was asked if the president would agree to a deal to cut spending further in exchange for Congress agreeing to raise the debt ceiling, he said: “We will not negotiate over Congress’s responsibility to pay the bills that Congress racked up. It is highly irresponsible to even flirt with that prospect …”
The press secretary for House Speaker John Boehner, Brendan Buck, meanwhile, attempted to return the favor and lay any potential shutdown back at Obama’s feet, suggesting the president’s main goal was to impose further tax hikes even if it meant a government shutdown to accomplish it.
Writing of Carney, Buck said: “Twice asked. Twice refused to take the shutdown threat off the table. This scenario is a lose-lose for the American economy: either a tumultuous government shutdown or further job losses as a result of tax hikes. And it cuts away all credibility the White House has when it decries — as it regularly does — such political tactics.”
That isn’t the only shutdown threat floating about nowadays. Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, among other Senate Republicans, is threatening to block any resolution to fund the government past the fall if it includes money for the Affordable Care Act.
The president’s economic speeches in coming days are meant not only to restate his vision for the economy, but to warn against the kind of high-stakes game of chicken that has become the standard way fiscal policy gets made in a Washington with divided control. The fact that come the fall we will be just a year away from the midterm elections promises to harden the stalemate even further.
So as Obama prepared to give his first in the series of economic speeches at Knox College in Illinois on Wednesday, most signs pointed to a cranking up of the brinkmanship that led to the spending cuts of the government sequester that Bernanke has blamed for restraining the economy and general economic uncertainty.
One thing that seemed certain was that there was little Obama could say in his economic speeches that will change that dynamic.