KPFK's Jon Wiener spoke with John Nichols of The Nation Magazine about the historical significance of the debt ceiling deal. Nichols argues that by establishing the debt ceiling as something that will be contested every time it has to be raised, Obama and the Republicans have likely changed the course of American history by severely limiting the power of Government to intervene in the economy, even in times of crisis.
Partial transcript of the interview
Jon Wiener: You know, Obama’s debt ceiling deal…In some ways I think this marks the darkest moment yet for us in relation to the Democratic Party. When the Republicans did so well in the 2010 midterm elections, I thought that would just cause a stalemate. The Democrats still controlled the White House and the Senate, but the Republicans would block everything by controlling the House. But what happened over the weekend is much worse than what I imagined a year or two ago. How about you?
John Nichols: Oh, you know, Jon, I’m just a cockeyed optimist. So I thought Barack Obama would run circles around the likes of John Boehner and Mitch McConnell, but I guess I was wrong. In fact, this is…Here’s the thing: You suggest that this is the worst…as bad as it’s been. I’m gonna argue that this is the continuation of a nightmare that began last December. Remember last December when President Obama cut the deal with Mitch McConnell to maintain the Bush-era tax cuts for billionaires and to create a host of new tax breaks in the form of inheritance taxes for millionaires? You know, I thought that that was sort of a nightmarish scenario because it was clear, even before the Republicans took full control of the House, that they knew how to game this guy. And famously, at the press conference where Obama was talking about that deal last December, a reporter said to him, “Well, Mr. President, don’t you think the Republicans are just gonna keep on doing this? Don’t you think that they’re gonna come back, when the debt ceiling issue arises sometime next year, and use that as a tool to force you to maintain tax cuts and to accept even deeper cuts in domestic programs?”
And Barack Obama said, “Oh, I think the Republicans are a lot more responsible than that. I don’t think they’d ever do that.”
JW: Yeah, I remember—
JN: I think it’s an ongoing story.
JW: And the ongoing story is that now the debt ceiling will be a permanent battleground that the Republicans are never gonna give up on.
JN: You’re absolutely right and you know, what Barack Obama did here was allow the Republican Party to create a whole new issue. And the history of American politics is really a struggle over who creates issues, who defines subjects for debate. And, you know, famously, when Civil Rights was put on the table in the late 1940s and early 1950s by African Americans—folks like A. Philip Randolph, the head of the Sleeping Car Porters union—they defined out an issue that everyone was going to talk about until it was resolved.
So, defining out an issue, putting it on the table, making it real in our politics, is ultimately the most important thing any political force does. It sets the rest of the debate. Well, Republicans took something that never existed as an issue up to now, the debt ceiling, and they defined it out as a fighting ground, as a subject that now every American understands. And from here on out, I think there’s gonna be great big battles—you know, take a stand, one side or the other, on the issue of raising the debt ceiling. The nightmare of this, the nightmare of this is that it is a totally false construct. We raised the debt ceiling because we have more people in this country, because we’re growing, because we’re expanding. You take on…you know, this is if you’ve got a family of four, and you have another kid, you may take a little bit of a loan. You may take a little more debt to add on a room to the house, or maybe you buy a somewhat bigger house. You know, you take on debt as you grow.
What the Republican Party has now done is set a parameter for debate in which it is possible to say, even when we grow, even when we expand as a country, we cannot expand to serve all our people. We cannot take those next steps that any functioning country on the face of the planet does. This is a very, very bad turn of affairs because if the Republicans prevail in these debates, if they continue to define things as they choose, we can never have a new social program. We can never talk about health care for all. And in fact, all we’ll really be talking about is contraction. Decline. Doing less.
And so you end up with a situation much like Fukuyama’s concept of the “End of History.” Right? That we’ve reached a point where it’s never gonna get better than this. And if that’s the case, if Barack Obama has been a, maybe an unwilling co-conspirator in a process of creating an End-of-History circumstance, where it’s never gonna get better than this…Then I’m gonna suggest to you that future historians will not look back on him as a particularly successful or useful president.