President Obama hosted a town-hall event in College Park, Maryland, this morning, and much of the discussion naturally turned to the debt-ceiling fiasco unfolding on Capitol Hill. Of particular interest, though, was an exchange about the so-called “Constitutional Option.”
Mr. Obama for the first time addressed — and ruled out — the idea that the Constitution empowers a president to increase the debt limit to prevent default and, as he put it, “basically ignore” the federal law requiring that the debt ceiling be set by statute. The argument of “the constitutional option,” which President Bill Clinton — like Mr. Obama a former constitutional law instructor — endorsed in an interview earlier this week, is based on the Fourteenth Amendment’s provision that the validity of the United States debt “shall not be questioned.”
“I have talked to my lawyers,” Mr. Obama said, and “they are not persuaded that that is a winning argument.”
This wasn’t quite the “first time” he addressed the question. It actually came up briefly a couple of weeks ago, during the White House Twitter Town Hall, and Obama said at the time, “I don’t think we should even get to the constitutional issue. Congress has a responsibility to make sure we pay our bills.”
Taken together, it certainly doesn’t sound as if this is the approach the president intends to pursue.
That said, I’m probably reading too much into the text, but I can’t help but note that Obama hasn’t categorically ruled out the constitutional option. He’s said he doesn’t want to rely on this tactic, and he said this morning that the lawyers aren’t “persuaded” this is legitimate, but notice that the president hasn’t gotten around to saying, “No, I reject this approach.”
Is this evidence of Obama leaving himself just a little wiggle room, in case push comes to shove? It’s hard to say with any certainty, but it’s one additional angle to keep an eye on.
Of course, there’s no telling how markets or the credit-rating agencies would respond to such a move, and there’s already been some chattering from far-right Republicans that they’d consider impeachment if Obama tried the move.
But I’m wondering what happens on, say, Aug. 1, when President Obama is sitting in the Oval Office, and his team presents him with a narrow set of options. One is an unpredictable economic crisis, which would begin the next day. The other is an unpredictable political crisis, which would prevent the economic catastrophe.
Would Obama simply rule out the latter? I hope we won’t have to find out, but his public comments on the matter suggest he hasn’t entirely closed the door on the possibility.