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
Add to Briefcase
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.

What We're Following See More »
Chef Jose Andres Campaigns With Clinton
1 hours ago
White House Weighs in Against Non-Compete Contracts
2 hours ago

"The Obama administration on Tuesday called on U.S. states to ban agreements prohibiting many workers from moving to their employers’ rivals, saying it would lead to a more competitive labor market and faster wage growth. The administration said so-called non-compete agreements interfere with worker mobility and states should consider barring companies from requiring low-wage workers and other employees who are not privy to trade secrets or other special circumstances to sign them."

House Investigators Already Sharpening Their Spears for Clinton
3 hours ago

House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz plans to spend "years, come January, probing the record of a President Hillary Clinton." Chaffetz told the Washington Post: “It’s a target-rich environment. Even before we get to Day One, we’ve got two years’ worth of material already lined up. She has four years of history at the State Department, and it ain’t good.”

No Lobbying Clinton’s Transition Team
6 hours ago

Hillary Clinton's transition team has in place strict rules to limit the influence that lobbyists could have "in crafting the nominee’s policy agenda." The move makes it unlikely, at least for now, that Clinton would overturn Obama's executive order limiting the role that lobbyists play in government

Federal Government Employees Giving Money to Clinton
6 hours ago

Federal employees from 14 agencies have given nearly $2 million in campaign donations in the presidential race thus far, and 95 percent of the donations, totaling $1.9 million, have been to the Clinton campaign. Employees at the State Department, which Clinton lead for four years, has given 99 percent of its donations to the Democratic nominee.


Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.