President Obama's vow not to negotiate on the debt limit this year is a stark reversal for an administration whose two top officials both have a history of balking at debt hikes.
Mr. Obama himself voted against a debt-limit increase in 2006, saying the government's leaders had deepened the deficit so badly that they didn't deserve a debt hike. And Vice President Joseph R. Biden in the 1980s led the exact same kind of rebellion that Mr. Obama now says he won't tolerate from the GOP.
Indeed, that October 1984 fight was only solved after the government dispatched two Air Force planes to pick up senators back in their home states and bring them to Washington so they could help defeat Mr. Biden -- exactly the kind of last-minute standoff Mr. Obama now says he wants to avoid.
The president says times have changed since his 2006 vote.
"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," Mr. Obama said at a news conference on Monday.
Treasury officials say the federal government will run out of borrowing room as early as a month from now, unless Congress and Mr. Obama raise the ceiling beyond the current $16.39 trillion debt level.
Two years ago, the last time he and Congress faced this challenge, Mr. Obama agreed to match a dollar in future spending cuts for every dollar in new debt authority he won.
Now he says he's done dealing.
Republicans on Monday eviscerated Mr. Obama for his about-face, with GOP aides gleefully pointing reporters to the records showing Mr. Obama's 2006 vote.
At the time, Mr. Obama called the need for a debt increase "a sign of leadership failure."
"Yet, under President Obama, we have seen record-setting deficit spending and trillions added to our nation's debt. This is leadership failure," House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Virginia Republican, said on Monday.
Analysts said it wasn't surprising Mr. Obama changed his stance once his address shifted from Capitol Hill to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
"I read it as a textbook example of the old Washington adage, 'Where you stand depends on where you sit,'" said Philip A. Wallach, a fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution. "He was responding to the institutional incentives that were available to him as a young senator who was able to score some rhetorical points by talking about out-of-control Washington spending. As president, his job is to make sure the government runs smoothly and to keep the economy from hitting a wall."
Mr. Biden's stance has received less attention.
But in 1984, when party roles were reversed and the GOP controlled the Senate and the White House, then-Sen. Biden helped lead a fight demanding spending cuts in exchange for more debt authority.
"I must express my protest against continually increasing the debt without taking positive steps to slow its growth. Therefore, I am voting against any further increase in the national debt," he said in a floor speech just before helping fellow Democrats defeat an increase of $251 billion on a 46-14 vote.
Of course at that time it was Republicans who called for a debt-hike without conditions, and warned of catastrophic consequences.
Ronald Reagan's Treasury Department warned of halting Social Security checks and pay for the troops -- the same fears Mr. Obama raises now.
Mr. Biden and his allies actually defeated the debt increase on the first vote, forcing Republican Majority Leader Howard Baker to scramble for support, dispatching the Air Force jets to bring senators back to town. Coupled with several vote-switchers, Mr. Baker prevailed and won the debt increase on a re-vote.
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Stephen Dinan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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