Reading Between the Rhetorical Lines in Obama’s U.N. Speech

In his address, the president offered congressional leaders — and himself — a way out of the shutdown and default dramas.

President Obama addresses the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday.
National Journal
Major Garrett
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Major Garrett
Sept. 24, 2013, 5 p.m.

As ex­traordin­ary as it sounds, Pres­id­ent Obama ad­dressed the United Na­tions Gen­er­al As­sembly about Amer­ica’s role in the world while heads of state knew that the lead­er of the globe’s most power­ful mil­it­ary and eco­nomy might soon preside over a shuttered gov­ern­ment tee­ter­ing on the edge of de­fault.

That Wash­ing­ton is numbed to shut­down scen­ari­os in no way un­der­cuts their sever­ity. Just the op­pos­ite. The worst oc­curs when the un­ac­cept­able be­comes banal.

Shut­ting down the gov­ern­ment, or threat­en­ing to do so, should not and can­not be­come an au­tum­nal ritu­al. The ob­ject of gov­ern­ment is gov­ern­ing. Gov­ern­ing re­quires, at min­im­um, an or­derly pro­cess of spend­ing, tax­ing, and reg­u­lat­ing. This re­quires a de­fer­ence to and rev­er­ence of sep­ar­a­tion of powers.

No party or law­maker can claim fi­del­ity to prin­ciple or ideo­logy who does not first re­spect the pro­cess by which dis­putes are le­gis­lat­ively re­solved. The path to res­ol­u­tion is paved with votes cast in pub­lic that pro­duce work­able, dur­able ma­jor­it­ies or su­per­ma­jor­it­ies. Either you have the votes or you know how to find them. Lack­ing either, you have the per­petu­al pes­ti­lence of pos­tur­ing.

When House Re­pub­lic­ans can­not pass a trans­port­a­tion bill that con­forms to their own budget res­ol­u­tion, that is a fail­ure of ba­sic gov­ern­ing. It also makes a mock­ery of Speak­er John Boehner’s now-brittle brom­ides about “reg­u­lar or­der.” Set­ting aside the sub­stance of the trans­port­a­tion bill, any ma­jor­ity party that re­jects a spend­ing bill that ad­heres to its budget is ad­mit­ting — in pub­lic — it is ser­i­ous about as­pir­a­tion and un­ser­i­ous about ex­e­cu­tion. House Re­pub­lic­ans have passed budget-ad­her­ing spend­ing bills on de­fense, en­ergy and wa­ter, home­land se­cur­ity, and vet­er­ans. Polit­ic­ally, these are the four easi­est and a con­fes­sion of ap­pro­pri­ations im­pot­ence else­where. Sen­ate Demo­crats haven’t passed any spend­ing bills be­cause the lead­er­ship seeks spend­ing tar­gets high­er than the cur­rent se­quest­ra­tion lim­its.

To avert a gov­ern­ment shut­down, votes must be found to pass a con­tinu­ing res­ol­u­tion that, for some dur­a­tion, keeps ba­sic ser­vices op­er­at­ing. The same is true to avoid a de­fault on Treas­ury debt ob­lig­a­tions. The res­ol­u­tion of the former could well in­flu­ence res­ol­u­tion of the lat­ter: A deal to avoid a shut­down could bring with it a wink-and-nod agree­ment to use the debt-ceil­ing pro­cess to re­solve fes­ter­ing is­sues over se­quest­ra­tion.

But only if both sides see a dif­fer­ent pos­sib­il­ity than the ones now be­fore them.

In this re­gard, Obama’s re­marks to the Gen­er­al As­sembly might well have been ad­dressed to con­gres­sion­al lead­ers — if he were ac­tu­ally meet­ing with them, that is. Or they could have been re­cited in front of a mir­ror. This is not to say that an­oth­er White House meet­ing would re­solve the con­flict or that Obama is the sole, or even prin­cip­al, source of dis­unity and dys­func­tion.

But pres­id­ents are not im­mune from ex­ec­ut­ive re­spons­ib­il­ity. Polit­ic­ally, Obama can de­flect blame and make Re­pub­lic­ans “own” a shut­down or de­fault. But he can­not avoid the eco­nom­ic con­sequences or the di­minu­tion of U.S. lead­er­ship au­thor­ity at a time when Amer­ica seeks to pro­ject power and in­flu­ence in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia.

In his ad­dress at the U.N., Obama spoke of the end of the Ir­aq war and the wind­ing down of the war in Afgh­anistan, say­ing the de­cisions to with­draw from both na­tions mean that Amer­ica is “shift­ing away from a per­petu­al war foot­ing.”

Obama and Re­pub­lic­ans in Con­gress must ask them­selves how much longer the coun­try they pro­fess to love and seek to gov­ern can en­dure with “a per­petu­al war foot­ing” on spend­ing. The in­ab­il­ity to pass ap­pro­pri­ations bills ought to be an ad­mis­sion of sur­render. Votes need to be found to pass dif­fer­ent bills.

In dis­cuss­ing geo­pol­it­ics in a post-Cold War era, Obama told the Gen­er­al As­sembly that resolv­ing con­flicts is “not a zero-sum en­deavor.” Neither is dodging a gov­ern­ment shut­down or de­fault. Re­pub­lic­ans want to de­fund Obama­care but can­not. The pres­id­ent has already changed parts of the law or delayed timelines for im­ple­ment­a­tion. An ex­change of ex­ec­ut­ive fi­at for per­man­ent le­gis­lat­ive lan­guage, or re­mov­al of a med­ic­al-devices tax, could cre­ate a le­gis­lat­ive open­ing.

On his­tor­ic­ally in­tract­able mat­ters such as peace between the Is­rael­is and the Palestini­ans, or emer­ging con­flicts in nearly failed states in Africa, Obama said the world will con­front some “very tough choices” that will in some cases be “im­per­fect.”

This is ab­so­lutely true of the shut­down and de­fault scen­ari­os. Par­tic­u­larly the de­fault scen­ario. Obama has said re­peatedly he won’t ne­go­ti­ate over rais­ing the soon-to-ex­pire debt ceil­ing. The ques­tion is, will he ne­go­ti­ate over an end to se­quest­ra­tion in the con­text of rais­ing the debt ceil­ing? The math­em­at­ics of a post-se­quester budget fu­ture are vis­ible if not yet polit­ic­ally at­tain­able: en­ti­tle­ment changes such as re­du­cing fu­ture cost-of-liv­ing ad­just­ments for So­cial Se­cur­ity and oth­er fed­er­al be­ne­fits (already in Obama’s budget) and some minor tax in­creases as part of a first take on tax re­form that also cuts cor­por­ate or in­di­vidu­al rates.

On glob­al is­sues — fight­ing ter­ror­ism, con­front­ing the pro­lif­er­a­tion of weapons of mass de­struc­tion, and cli­mate change — Obama said all na­tions must change: “We must get bet­ter — all of us — at the policies that pre­vent the break­down of ba­sic or­der.”

Brushes with gov­ern­ment shut­downs and de­fault are fun­da­ment­ally a break­down of ba­sic or­der. They wound the eco­nomy and di­min­ish U.S. prestige.

On Syr­ia’s deni­al that it used chem­ic­al weapons against ci­vil­ian pop­u­la­tions on Aug. 21, Obama char­ac­ter­ized Pres­id­ent Bashar al-As­sad’s re­fus­al to ac­cept blame as “an in­sult to hu­man reas­on.”

So, too, is this now-dan­ger­ous au­tumn dance with gov­ern­ment fail­ure. It is an in­sult to reas­on, his­tory, and the el­eg­ant le­gis­lat­ive ma­chinery our an­cest­ors be­queathed us.

Bur­ied with­in Obama’s speech to the world was a speech to ourselves. Time to heed it and re­store ba­sic or­der.

Ma­jor Gar­rett is Na­tion­al Journ­al Cor­res­pond­ent-at-Large and Chief White House Cor­res­pond­ent for CBS News. He is also a dis­tin­guished fel­low at the George Wash­ing­ton Uni­versity School of Me­dia and Pub­lic Af­fairs.

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