How Obama Can Win the Debt Ceiling by Threatening Mutual Destruction

Last week, The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent had the great idea of talking to an actual hostage negotiator, for a little more insight into the current situation with congressional Republicans and the debt ceiling. Throughout the interview, the negotiator stressed one key point: If you want to defuse a hostage situation, you have to show the hostage taker that you’re in control. For police, this is straightforward—they have lots of guns, and the hostage taker doesn’t.

President Obama can’t sit the National Guard outside of John Boehner’s home, but the idea still holds. If congressional Republicans can see that he holds the cards in the situation, then they might walk away and agree to lift the debt ceiling. Obama already has one, important card—public opinion. Already, a solid majority of Americans say that the GOP is too extreme. If the government defaults on its obligations as a result of hitting the debt limit, there’s little doubt Americans will blame the Republican Party.

But there’s a core group of Republicans who, because of their safe seats in heavily gerrymandered districts, aren’t responsive to national opinion. Which is why Obama needs something else to show his control.

That’s where the trillion-dollar coin comes in.

The trillion-dollar coin gives Obama a way to legally get around the debt ceiling, thus robbing congressional Republicans of their leverage. Moreover, Obama doesn’t have to use the coin so much as he needs to show his willingness to do so if Republicans refuse to budge. In other words, mutually assured destruction—but with platinum, not plutonium.

The White House hasn’t endorsed the coin, but it hasn’t rejected the idea either. To wit, after taking questions on the coin from NBC’s Chuck Todd, Press Secretary Jay Carney ducked the issue:

"I would simply go back to what I said. The option here is for Congress to do its job and pay its bills – bills that have already been racked up. We saw what happened last summer, the summer of 2011, when Congress flirted with the idea of default, didn’t even go all the way to default, and yet the impact on our economy was severe, the impact on average Americans was severe.

“We had the lowest job creation in the month of August of 2011 of any month during the recovery, and the reason is because of what House Republicans did that summer. Now, we can’t do that again. So let’s not even pretend that that’s an okay scenario.”

Carney was pressed several times to explicitly rule out the coin, and he refused. By contrast, when advocates began to float the Fourteenth Amendment option—where the president declares that the Constitution forbids him from going over the debt ceiling—the White House was quick to dismiss the idea.

This might not mean anything, and odds are good that it doesn’t. But if you were trying to show Republicans that you were willing to go around them on the debt ceiling, this would be the way to do it. You don’t have to endorse the coin—or even talk about—you just have to show Washington that it’s on your mind. As long as Republicans know they aren’t in control, it’s mission accomplished.

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