Opinion Brief

Obama's primetime debt ceiling address: 4 takeaways

The president spoke to the nation Monday night, just a week before the U.S. may run out of money to pay many of its bills. What did we learn?

President Obama gave a 15-minute speech on the debt-ceiling stalemate on Monday night, warning of the economic pain for the U.S. economy and American families if Congress doesn't raise the nation's legal borrowing limit by Aug. 2. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), who pulled out of White House negotiations late last week, gave a five-minute rebuttal directly afterward, blaming the impasse on Obama's insistence on a "balanced" plan that cuts spending and raises revenue. What did the dueling speeches tell us about where we are in this dangerous standoff? Here, four takeaways:

1. Obama is hewing to the center; Boehner keeps tacking right
If anything was clarified in the back-to-back speeches, it's that "the debate over the debt ceiling is not left vs. right," says E.J. Dionne in The Washington Post. "It's center vs. right," and Obama has placed himself firmly on the side of "middle-of-the-road Americans." Obama backed a Senate plan that takes a meat cleaver to federal spending, in a speech with some "nice touches" — like a surprisingly apt Ronald Reagan quote, and a useful reminder that free-spending Republicans didn't "worry about deficits until Obama took office." Boehner, meanwhile, spoke mainly to his conservative base, and made crystal clear that the GOP is "committed to low taxes for the wealthy above everything else," including America's creditworthiness. 

2. The president still has no plan
A week away from default, "the president has yet to bring a plan of his own to the table, instead relying on others to address the looming fiscal crisis," says S.E. Cupp in the New York Daily News. Obama has given speeches, engaged in political gamesmanship, and "petulantly scolded House and Senate Republicans." What he needs to do is lead. Boehner, on the other hand, does have a specific plan, says Nate Silver in The New York Times. But the speaker's politically charged proposal is a non-starter in the Senate, and may not even pass in Boehner's House.

3. Obama has given up on Republicans
Obama's "pitch-perfect 15-minute address" was actually very effective at getting across "the real dangers of failing to raise the U.S. debt ceiling," says Richard Adams in Britain's Guardian. But based on his hard words for GOP legislators, it's pretty clear that "Obama must now assume that his chances of genuine cooperation have vanished, if they were ever there in the first place." It's unlikely that shaming House Republicans will win him any votes for the Senate measure he favors, but who knows? "It worked for Harry Truman and FDR."

4. We won't get a solution until the last minute... if at all
Obama and Boehner both interrupted "America's primetime TV lineup" mainly to "posture in public for political advantage," says Michael Scherer in TIME. That's frustrating, but it at least gave the viewing public a clear picture of the gap dividing the two sides of this absurd threat to the U.S. and global economy. So we're left with a few "more nail-biting days" of test votes and secret negotiations, says Dan Balz in The Washington Post. Then, "only when it is shown that neither Boehner's nor [Senate Majority Leader Harry] Reid's plan can get out of Congress can real negotiations for a compromise begin." Let's hope it's not too late.

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