Editor’s note: Besides addressing the debt limit, Obama also addressed gun legislation. You can see our separate story on that here.
President Barack Obama during a surprise press conference Monday explained that raising the debt ceiling “does not authorize Congress to spend more” but merely allows “America to pay its bills.”
“We’re not a deadbeat nation,” the president stressed. “Congress authorizes us to pay our bills.”
The president also said that if Congress wants to give him the power to raise debt ceiling, “I’m happy to take it.”
He said Congress has two choices: Either raise the debt ceiling or give him the authority to do so. Either way, the president seemed to say, the limit will be increased.
“I will not have that conversation with a gun at the head of the American people,” the president said, referring to his commitment to avoid another debt ceiling fight. “We have to break the habit of negotiating through crisis over and over again.”
“[Republican leaders] will not collect a ransom in exchange for not crashing the American economy,” he added. “The full faith and credit of the United States of America is not a bargaining chip.”
However, it’s no secret that during his time as state senator, the president voted against similar increases to the debt limit. And much to the president’s apparent irritation, CBS News’ Major Garret noted this detail during the presser.
“As you well know, sir, finding votes for the debt ceiling can sometimes be complicated. You yourselves as a member of the Senate voted against a debt ceiling increase,” said Garrett. “You yourself four times have done that; three times those were related to deficit reduction or budget maneuvers.”
“I think many people are curious about is this new adamant desire on your part not to negotiate when that seems to conflict with the entire history in the modern era of American presidents in the debt ceiling and your own history on the debt ceiling,” he added.
The president responded:
Well, no, Major. I think if you look at the history, getting votes for the debt ceiling is always difficult and budgets in this town are always difficult. I went through this just last year. But what’s different is we never saw a situation as we saw last year in which certain groups in Congress took such an absolutist position that we came within a few days of defaulting.
And, you know, the fact of the matter is, is that we have never seen the debt ceiling used in this fashion, where the notion was, you know what, we might default unless we get 100 percent of what we want. That hasn’t happened.
This is the United States of America, Major. Why — what — we can’t manage our affairs in such a way that we pay our bills? And we provide some certainty in terms of how we pay our bills? Look I — I don’t — I don’t think anybody would consider my position unreasonable here. The — I have…
Watch the exchange here:
And Garrett is correct: Obama used to oppose increases to the nation’s debt limit. In fact, in 2006, then-Sen. Obama said this: “America has a debt problem and a failure of leadership. Americans deserve better. I therefore intend to oppose the effort to increase America’s debt limit.”
However, by 2011, the president’s stance on the debt ceiling had “evolved.”
“You’ve got to extend the debt limit by May. And your job is a lot tougher because of your vote in the Senate against extending the debt limit. When did you realize that vote was a mistake?” ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos asked in an interview.
The president responded [emphasis added]:
I think that it’s important to understand the vantage point of a senator versus the vantage point of a president. When you’re a senator, traditionally what’s happened is, this is always a lousy vote. Nobody likes to be tagged as having increased the debt limit – for the United States by a trillion dollars.
As president, you start realizing, you know what, we, we can’t play around with this stuff. This is the full faith and credit of the United States. And so that was just an example of a new senator making what is a political vote as opposed to doing what was important for the country. And I’m the first one to acknowledge it.
The majority of Monday’s surprise presser focused on the president’s promise to avoid a default.
“It would be a self-inflicted wound on the economy,” said President Obama. “It would slow down our growth and tip us into recession. To even entertain the idea of this happening is irresponsible. It’s absurd.”
He added: “America cannot afford another debate with this Congress about whether or not they should pay the bills they’ve already racked up.”
Along with other bills he signed earlier in his first term, the president said he and Congress have “reduced deficits by about $2.5 trillion over a decade,” as the Associated Press notes, which, of course, is less than the $4 trillion he said is necessary to get them down to “a manageable size.”
The president also promised 2013 would be a good year for the U.S. economy:
Obama: ‘Our economy is growing…we are poised for a good year.’
— Byron York (@ByronYork) January 14, 2013
UPDATE: The Republican response to the final presser of the president’s first term was swift, definitive, and predictable.
From Republican Study Committee Chairman Steve Scalise:
President Obama seems to be the only person in Washington who threatens default on America’s debt obligations.
The President has an obligation to preserve the credit rating of the United States, and hitting the debt ceiling does not immediately trigger a default unless his administration fails to do its job and prioritize our debt payments. Default is not an option unless President Obama and his administration choose it to be.
The root of our economic problem is out of control spending. Until Washington stops spending money it doesn’t have, America will continue down the path towards insolvency paved by Greece. President Obama continues to run trillion dollar deficits as far as the eye can see. We can’t continue borrowing money from China as we rack up more debt and send the bill to our children and grandchildren. The federal government has a spending problem and the only remedy is to control spending.
From House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio):
The American people do not support raising the debt ceiling without reducing government spending at the same time. The consequences of failing to increase the debt ceiling are real, but so too are the consequences of allowing our spending problem to go unresolved.
Without meaningful action, the debt will continue to act as an anchor on our economy, costing American jobs and endangering our children’s future.
The House will do its job and pass responsible legislation that controls spending, meets our nation’s obligations and keeps the government running, and we will insist that the Democratic majority in Washington do the same.
Follow Becket Adams (@BecketAdams) on Twitter
Featured image courtesy @dorseyshaw.