The President’s town hall meeting on the debt limit deal told us quite a out about what his supporters are thinking. First of all, they want a way out of this mess without having to cut the deficit massively in the middle of a jobs crisis.

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.”

We already knew that the President ruled it out, but Clinton kept the ball in the air this week with his pronouncement, and clearly it’s on the minds of supporters that go to town hall meetings of the President. Like Steve Benen, I wonder how the Constitutional option argument looks on August 1, with no deal in sight.

Second, we learned that people do not want benefit cuts, especially crippling ones to worthwhile programs like Medicaid. This video of a man with cerebral palsy pleading with the President not to impact disability programs is revealing in this regard.

Third, we learned that in order to sell this to supporters, the President still has to claim that it represents a balanced approach, when trial balloon after trial balloon yesterday showed that the revenue side would be little more than aspirational.

Speaking at a town hall meeting at the University of Maryland in College Park, Obama told a largely supportive audience, “We can’t just close our deficit with spending cuts alone.” That would mean senior citizens would have to “pay a lot more for Medicare,” students would have trouble getting education loans, job training programs would be trimmed and there were be “devastating cuts” in medical and clean-energy research, he said.

“If we only did it with cuts, if we did not get any revenue to help close this gap . . . then a lot of ordinary people would be hurt, and the country as a whole would be hurt,” Obama said. “And that doesn’t make any sense. It’s not fair. And that’s why I’ve said, if we’re going to reduce our deficit, then the wealthiest Americans and the biggest corporations should do their part as well.”

The Senate, meanwhile, tabled the Cut, Cap and Balance Act by a 51-46 vote, in a predictable move along party lines. The fact that right-wing House members thought tabling was a good sign and that it meant the Senate could bring it up again, when in reality it’s the normal way of how the Senate disposes of House bills, is pretty disturbing. House Speaker John Boehner criticized the move and said, ominously, that “we did our job” and the burden is now on the Senate to come up with something.

“The House has acted. We passed a bill that raised the debt limit, cuts spending, puts in place real reforms in place, and requires Congress send to the states a Balanced Budget Amendment. It’s called ‘cut, cap, and balance.’

“We’ve done our job. The Democrats who run Washington have done nothing. They can’t stop spending the American people’s money. They won’t and they refuse.

“The Senate Majority Leader says they still won’t offer a plan to cut spending. Or a plan to raise the debt limit. Frankly, that’s irresponsible.”

But this is largely kabuki, as the grand bargain talks continue at the White House, with little transparency on what they have in store. The Senate now has their plan, McConnell-Reid, in abeyance while those talks continue. But the Senate’s patience is wearing thin, and they plan to move forward if the House produces nothing that can pass the Senate by Wednesday.


David Dayen

David Dayen