White House readies Obama fiscal flip-flop

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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Presidents are loath to admit error. That’s what press secretaries are for.

On Monday, White House spokesman Jay Carney said then-Senator Obama made a mistake when he voted in 2006 against a measure to raise the debt ceiling a $3,500 billion to $8,600 billion. Obama “regrets that vote and thinks it was a mistake,” Carney told reporters at the daily press briefing.

This admission of pre-presidential misjudgment comes as incumbent President Obama pushes Congress to raise the debt ceiling above $14,300 billion. “He realizes now that raising the debt ceiling is so important to the health of this economy and the global economy that it is not a vote that, even when you are protesting an administration’s policies, you can play around with,” Carney said.

Carney’s acknowledgment of error comes two days before the president gives a national speech outlining his spending plans, and according to Carney, his vision of a “balanced” deficit-reduction plan. In the next few weeks, he’ll pressure GOP legislators to raise the debt ceiling, and so is likely to face charges from Republicans of flip-flopping on debt-ceiling votes.

“If they’re going to have him flip-flop, it’s probably a good idea to lay the groundwork in a press briefing,” said Dana Perino, press secretary for George W. Bush from 2007 to 2009.

White House officials are pushing for the increased debt ceiling because the president and allied Democrats have spent $3,000 billion more than incoming tax-revenue since 2008, and want to spend at least $7,200 billion more than predicted tax revenues over the next decade to fund expansions in the size and reach of government, including Obamacare. The debt to be incurred over the next 10 years, according to the Heritage Foundation, amounts to $80,000 per household.

Small-government advocates are eager to use Senator Obama’s 2006 statement against President Obama. “Over the past five years, our federal debt has increased by $3.5 trillion to $8.6 trillion,” Obama said in 2006. “This rising debt is a hidden domestic enemy, robbing our cities and states of critical investments in infrastructure like bridges, ports and levees; robbing our families and our children of critical investments in education and health-care reform; robbing our seniors of the retirement and health security they have counted on,” Senator Obama declared when the White was occupied by Republican President George W. Bush.

That floor speech prompted a response of “Well said, Senator Obama!” from Dustin Stockton, the media and events director for an Arizona-based Tea Party group, TheTeaParty.net. “When the Democrats roll out their favorite argument — ‘Republicans are holding the full faith and credit of the United States hostage to attack seniors, women’s health, and the environment’ — we should simply remind them of the words of one Senator Barack Obama,” said Stockton’s statement. “The numbers [in 2011] are even larger [so] this is the perfect opportunity for Republicans to extract more cuts, defund Planned Parenthood and significantly change the EPA,” Stockton said.

But Carney’s Monday prebuttal revealed the president’s likely counter to Stockton’s pending rebuttal. The president “realizes now that raising the debt ceiling is so important to the health of this economy and the global economy that it is not a vote that, even when you are protesting an administration’s policies, you can play around with,” Carney said.

The podium from which Carney speaks includes two hidden computer displays. They allow his staff to show him prepared answers when he is asked an expected question. That’s why Carney was able to buttress his defense of the president with answers from Republicans and Democratic-affiliated bankers on Wall Street. “Others outside of government, including former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, S&P chief economist David Weiss, for example, said that [a failure to raise the debt ceiling] could cause significant and long-lasting financial and economic disruption …  JPMorgan Chase head Jamie Dimon said, ‘If anyone wants to push that button — i.e. fail to raise the debt ceiling, which I think would be catastrophic and unpredictable, I think they’re crazy,’” Carney told the press Monday.

When pressed by reporters for a better explanation of his road-to-November-2012 conversion, Carney next explained, ”when you’re in the legislature, when you’re in the Senate, you want to make clear your position if you don’t agree with policies of the administration … [but] there are many other ways to do it” other than voting against a debt-ceiling resolution.

Carney continued his defense of the president, saying that he “has demonstrated his commitments [to deficit reduction] clearly, and will again on Wednesday when he lays out his vision for long-term deficit reduction.”

Carney’s admission of a mistake is a shift from a January claim by then-press secretary Robert Gibbs, who described Obama’s 2006 vote as a protest against deficit-spending.  Obama voted against the resolution “to make a point about needing to get serious about fiscal discipline,” Gibbs told ABC’s Jake Tapper. Senator Obama also knew the 2006 resolution would pass without his vote, and that his vote wouldn’t endanger the country’s financial health, Gibbs added. “I think clearly he was sending a message… his vote was not necessarily needed” to pass the resolution, Gibbs said.