With debt comet about to hit, this is no time for a pacifist president
If the debt crisis is not solved in Congress, the US President must deploy the nuclear option: the 14th amendment, writes Matthew Norman
Anyone with a healthy appetite for transient terror loves a disaster movie, but being trapped in the reality version appears to be less fun than it is at the flicks. Gazing across the Atlantic as the US debt crisis countdown clock clicks remorselessly toward Doomsday on August 2, ghoulish fascination mingles with mounting panic, I find myself thinking about the first black president of the United States.
I refer not to Barack Obama, of course, but to Morgan Freeman's Tom Beck in 'Deep Impact'. That 1998 disaster movie seems a handy reference point for the crazy melodrama in Washington, where at the time of writing ever more frantic congressional wrangling is no closer to producing even a short-term postponement of the coming apocalypse.
The plot concerns a comet hurtling toward the Atlantic seaboard with every intention of doing for humanity what a predecessor did for the dinosaurs. The problem for Beck, in facing this "extinction-level event", is that even the most bipartisan of presidents cannot reason with a comet.
In a striking instance of life imitating art, Mr Obama has the identical problem. The Tea Party may technically be an umbrella term for a ragtag coalition of self-styled patriots, but in political terms it is a ball of raging, all-consuming fire that exists to obliterate whatever lies in its path. If that includes the US's AAA credit rating, with God knows what consequences for an already stagnant US economy and a petrified world beyond, so be it. There is no compromising with a comet. All you can do is try to destroy it before it destroys you.
This President Beck attempted to do by sending astronauts to implant nuclear warheads at its core. Now Mr Obama is advised to take the nuclear option himself. If no deficit reduction deal can be struck, his supporters urge, he should use the 14th Amendment to bypass Congress and raise the debt limit above the $14.3tn ceiling himself.
Bill Clinton says that he would use the 14th, if it will forgive the familiarity, in a trice. But Obama is hardly a nuclear kinda guy, and the erstwhile constitutional law professor in him doubts that section 4, which states that "the validity of the public debt . . . shall not be questioned", covers the unilateral raising of the debt ceiling by executive order. If he relied on the 14th, an inevitable referral to the Supreme Court might be the least of it. Congressional Tea Party hostages, feigning Stockholm Syndrome in the hope of persuading their captors not to shoot them by way of primary challenges, would seek to impeach him for acting unconstitutionally.
The obvious answer to that objection is, in the argot of George W Bush, bring it on. He has offered Republican negotiators huge cuts in welfare benefits and a delay in entitlement to Medicare until the age of 67, regardless of the political price to be levied in the 2012 election for further alienating his base. This was rejected. He has asked that roughly one dollar in every three of the deficit reduction comes from tax hikes for the very rich. Also rejected. Although this may change (and may, for all I know, have changed overnight), there currently appears to be nothing he could offer that would be acceptable to the Tea Party and its stooges on Capitol Hill.
How long must this appeasement continue before Obama tires of the Neville Chamberlain tribute act and moves that bust of Churchill back into the Oval Office? If that analogy seems as laughably hysterical as the 'Deep Impact' one, maybe it is. This being virgin territory, no one can predict the outcome of a default. But nor does anyone quite believe that it would represent an existential threat. Life, as President Beck put it after the chunk of comet not destroyed by the nukes hit the Atlantic seaboard, must go on.
Meanwhile, the Tea Party, for all its neo-fascistic overtones and the "resistance is futile" motto engraved below the wrecking ball rampant on its metaphorical heraldic crest, is not Hitler.
What it is, however, is an insanely purist anti-democratic menace that disdains any compromise, even when almost entirely on its own terms. Its members are enslaved to a warped Manichean ideology, mingling elements of anarchism and nihilism with ferociously un-Christian disregard for those in greatest need, which holds that taxation and government are evils in themselves. Its members could not care less about a default, whether or not that result is sharply raised interest rates that will cripple their personal finances, along with their country and the world. Quite the reverse, they embrace the prospect. Regardless of collateral damage to themselves, war is what they crave.
So, this is not the time for a pacifist president. This is the time for the president to slip the deadening shackles of academic aloofness, and go to war. But does Obama have a warrior within? If the party of "Hell, no! Now what was the question?" continues to hold sway through the weekend, we will find out soon enough. He has the codes and the warhead is primed. Upon whether he has the balls to activate it before the comet scorches past the point of no return, and deploys the 14th to avert the cataclysm, rather more than his own place in history will depend. (© Daily Telegraph, London)