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Obama-Boehner Breakdown Leaves Many Questions, Fewer Answers

President Obama leaves the White House press briefing room after discussing the breakdown in debt-ceiling talks with Speaker John Boehner, July 22, 2011.
Alex Wong
Getty Images
President Obama leaves the White House press briefing room after discussing the breakdown in debt-ceiling talks with Speaker John Boehner, July 22, 2011.

Now that the one-on-one debt ceiling talks between President Obama and Speaker John Boehner have broken down, there are obviously more questions than answers about what exactly happened and where matters go from here.

Let's go through just a few of them.

The meta question is obviously will the nation's leaders be able to achieve a deal to raise the debt ceiling before Aug. 2, the date beyond which, the U.S. Treasury says, it won't be able to fend off a default?


The fact that veteran Washington policymakers, analysts and observers appear to be truly worried about whether the nation can avoid a first-time ever U.S. default means the probability for default is no longer at zero percent or as close to that as it's been in the past. Therefore, be afraid. Be very afraid.

Did the president move the goalposts as the speaker said he did but the president insists he didn't?

In answering a question at his news conference, the president did leave the impression that he may have asked Boehner to agree to additional revenues after the two men had landed on about $800 billion in revenues over ten years from changes to the tax code.

Obama said:


...There were about $800 billion in revenue that were going to be available. And what we said was when you've got a ratio of $4 in cuts for every $1 of revenue, that's pretty hard to stomach. And we think it's important to make sure that whatever additional revenue is in there covers the amount of money that's being taken out of entitlement programs. That's only fair.

If I'm saying to future recipients of Social Security or Medicare that you're going to have to make some adjustments, it's important that we're also willing to make some adjustments when it comes to corporate jet owners, or oil and gas producers, or people who are making millions or billions of dollars.

But Boehner clearly felt the White House was making an additional request for tax revenues and, by his lights, what the White House was asking for constituted tax increases:

Now, let me just say that the White House moved the goal posts.
There was an agreement on some additional revenues until yesterday, when the president demanded $400 billion more, which was going to be nothing more than a tax increase on the American people. And I can tell you that Leader Cantor and I were very disappointed in this call for higher revenue.

This leads to another question which Boehner was asked at his Capitol Hill news conference.

A reporter asked how Boehner could walk away from the prospect of a deal that was meant to avert default over what amounted to $40 billion a year or $400 billion over ten years?

Boehner said the extra $400 billion would've been a tax increase plain and simple and he couldn't abide that.

More questions. So Boehner couldn't reach a deal with Obama but he's going to try to reach one with Sen. Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, and Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the House minority leader at the table? How, pray tell, is that going to work?

(Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader will also be at the table. McConnell is the creator of a proposal that would essentially yield Obama the power to raise the debt ceiling even as Republicans voted against it.)

Reid is the same man who on Friday killed the "Cut, Cap and Balance" legislation proudly passed by Boehner's House Republicans. Reid actually killed the bill earlier than he had initially said he would, calling extended debate on a bill going nowhere a waste of time.

Reid is also the leader of a group of Senate Democrats who acted like they were fed saltpeter after they heard rumors Thursday that Obama was close to striking a deal with Boehner that would have frontloaded all the GOP-sought spending cuts and backloaded the revenue increases Democrats wanted.

In otherwords, they thought Obama had gone wobbly on them and were very upset.

Then there's Pelosi. She's only considered one of Capitol Hill's toughest negotiators. Pelosi is said to be so unyielding on her issues that Obama didn't let her take part in last year's negotiations on extending the Bush tax cuts and jobless benefits for fear that she would have made any deal impossible.

Again, the question would be why does Boehner think he'll have more success with these congressional Democrats than with Obama?

Yet another question is, who benefits most politically from the breakdown in the Obama-Boehner talks?

Polls have been trending in Obama's direction in recent days, with a majority of Americans saying they favor a debt-ceiling agreement that generally resembles Obama's approach than that of congressional Republicans, in other words, that would include spending cuts and tax increases.

Meanwhile, political independents say they want Democrats and Republicans to work together to solve the nation's problems, a position that would again seem to favor Obama's approach.

So it's hard to see Boehner's action as helping him in the court of public opinion.

But Boehner is leading a Republican conference with many new members who are anti-establishment in sensibility and very anti-Obama in particular.

Boehner is an institutionalist, which has made him suspect in the eyes of some in his conference because they tend to distrust those they see as creatures of Washington.

So appearing to stand tough against Obama could help Boehner's street cred with many in his Republican conference whose support he needed to become speaker and will continue to require to remain speaker in the next Congress assuming Republicans keep their majority.

Whether he will be speaker of a nation that has defaulted on its debts would be another question, however.

Perhaps one of the most important questions, the one that is going through many minds right now is, what will the bond market think of all this?

Because in the end, if the financial markets, especially the bond market, decides the U.S. isn't what it's cracked up to be, then what else matters?

For as James Carville famously said:

I used to think that if there was reincarnation, I wanted to come back as the president or the pope or as a .400 baseball hitter. But now I would like to come back as the bond market. You can intimidate everybody.

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