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The American Prospect

Where is Our Crisis President?

Obama should have steered us away from disaster. Instead he drove us straight to it.

Like most American spectators watching this slow-motion train wreck of a budget disaster, I have assumed that at the last minute the damsel would be pulled off the track of the oncoming train. Somehow, the Republicans would appreciate the stakes, a compromise (albeit on sickeningly Republican terms) would be reached, and the nation would be spared the catastrophe of default—a gratuitous deepening of an already dire economic mess.

Now I am not so sure. In the last 48 hours, the Republicans have dug in even more, and Democrats are drawing the line at the Reid plan (which is already far too Republican).

For those who think that a default won’t happen because it is in nobody’s interest, think back on World War I. It was in nobody’s interest. Yet it destroyed Europe’s common civilization and ushered in nearly a century of economic instability and war. World War I occurred because both sides dug in and assumed the other would have to blink first. But that was a miscalculation. Instead of a last-minute deal, we got four years of trench warfare, economic ruin, and millions of wasted lives. Oops.

This is where we are headed. As I have written elsewhere, the only thing that will spare us now is for President Obama to invoke the 14th Amendment. I’ve written this so many times—for the Prospect, for Huffington Post, and last night at the invitation of Politico that it almost feels like I’m recycling myself.

Mike Tomasky, our former executive editor, has a good piece in Daily Beast/Newsweek today making the same argument but questions whether Obama has the nerve to do it—the usual question with our president.


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And Representative James Clyburn, the third ranking Democrat in the House, has been fairly pleading with his president to take the 14th. There will be a press conference today, at 14th Street and Constitution Avenue (get it?) by Democratic House members, led by Clyburn and urging this course.

This may sound churlish at such a moment, but in addition to blaming the recklessness of today’s Republican party, the man who deserves substantial blame for this impending economic doomsday is Barack Obama. For two and a half years, he has been all but training the Republicans, Pavlov fashion, to keep rejecting compromise. He has done this by rewarding them with a treat every time they up the ante or move the goal posts.

Obama’s job, as a crisis president, was to define the nature of the economic disaster and the way out of it, to move public opinion in his direction, and then to make it very costly for Republicans to resist. That’s what the great crisis presidents have done.

Instead, his manner—conciliation at all costs—in addition to costing the Democrats a midterm blowout, has only produced a more radical and intransigent Republican Party. Even this week, his manner at his address to the nation was earnest, professorial, even pleading. So if the Republicans, like Europe’s leaders of 1914, miscalculate and create disaster, the responsibility will partly be theirs but also partly our overly eager-to-please president.

The 14th Amendment option gives him a belated chance to recoup—to spare catastrophe, to demonstrate nerve and leadership. What do you say, Mr. President?

Robert Kuttner

Robert Kuttner

Robert Kuttner is co-founder and co-editor of The American Prospect magazine, as well as a Distinguished Senior Fellow of the think tank Demos. He was a longtime columnist for Business Week, and continues to write columns in the Boston Globe and Huffington Post. He is the author of A Presidency in Peril: The Inside Story of Obama's Promise, Wall Street's Power, and the Struggle to Control our Economic Future, Obama's Challenge, and other books.

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