With the Debt Ceiling Standoff, Joe Biden Has Tried Nothing and Is All Out of Ideas

After claiming for months he wouldn’t negotiate budget cuts in exchange for raising the debt ceiling, Joe Biden is doing just that. In caving to the GOP’s threats, Biden is empowering them to demand even more.

Joe Biden delivers remarks on the debt ceiling at the White House on May 9, 2023 in Washington, DC. (Anna Moneymaker / Getty Images)

On Sunday, in response to questions about his debt ceiling talks with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, Joe Biden told reporters, “Well, I’ve learned a long time ago, and you know as well as I do: it never is good to characterize a negotiation in the middle of a negotiation.”

Given the opaque and abstract nature of the debt ceiling, and the fact that there has been so much talk and no action for so long, it would be easy to miss the significance of this remark. But the White House has said for months — and as recently as Friday — that it would not negotiate with Republicans over lifting the debt ceiling. Given the potentially catastrophic results of defaulting, Biden argued, Republicans should not be allowed to extract concessions in exchange for completing one of Congress’s most routine and perfunctory tasks.

But it seems that all this stance resulted in was a lot of wasted time.

While the White House maintained a hard rhetorical line, it apparently did not seriously pursue any plan to give it leverage against the House GOP’s demands. Alternatives like minting more money to pay the debt or citing the 14th Amendment to simply keep paying it absent congressional action were apparently never seriously considered. Both ideas are novel and controversial, but each has the backing of numerous mainstream economists and constitutional scholars.

Having tried no alternatives, Biden had little choice but to start negotiating. Waiting until the last minute likely strengthened Republicans’ hand, as the day the government will default draws closer.

The specifics of the negotiations are still up in the air, but reporting suggests the question is less give-and-take between the two parties, and more about how much Biden will give away. (For example, after months of claiming they wouldn’t negotiate, the new Democratic Party line seems to be that they’re willing to make it more difficult to access food stamps but not Medicaid.) This is hardly surprising, given Biden’s lack of leverage.

Despite Biden’s claims that “this negotiation is about the outlines of the budget, not about whether or not we’re going to (pay our debts),” for all intents and purposes, it is about precisely that. Negotiation on the budget can’t begin in earnest until the government has funded its current debt.

By extracting concessions now in exchange for not tanking the global economy, Republicans have given themselves two chances to make cuts to the budget. The same dynamic between Biden and the House will start all over again when budget negotiations themselves start, but at that point, a significant number of Republican demands will already be baked in as the new starting point.

Of course, this entire conversation assumes that McCarthy can get House Republicans to accept as sufficient whatever concessions Biden gives. Given the far-right Freedom Caucus’s penchant for personally humiliating McCarthy and the draconian rules they established for his speakership, that is far from certain. The GOP’s right wing could easily demand more, or force a government default just to make a point. Why would they stop now that they’ve seen it works?

While Republicans’ tactics are more brazen this year than in many years past, by now the entire fake drama those watching the debt ceiling discussion have seen follows a well-established script: Republicans seize the political initiative and demand cuts to both taxes on the rich and virtually all social spending; most Democrats say that would be wrong but do little of consequence to stop it and the resulting negotiations are over how much of Republicans’ agenda to implement. When it’s over, everyone pats themselves on the back for finding a “bipartisan compromise.” Biden himself has a recurring role in this decades-long serial drama.

The resulting slow grind of austerity — and, with it, the sense that things keep getting worse without a clear explanation why — was one factor in the rise of Donald Trump, and of the far right in general. When it is in one party’s political interest to degrade even the basic functions of government, the way to fight back is to refuse to play the game. That’s exactly what Biden said he was going to do the past six months. But in the end, it was the rest of us who got played.