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The Dangerous Flaw in Obama’s Debt Ceiling Speech

Barack Obama’s speech Monday night about the debt ceiling will help him politically by painting the Republican opposition as heartless and intransigent and his own approach—to use the word of the night—as “balanced.” Obama even framed the choice in somewhat populist terms by portraying the Republicans as unwilling to ask big business and the wealthy to make the sacrifices they want to exact from the rest of society. That’s all to the good.

But, in drawing this line with the Republicans, and, in framing the choice the country needs to make, Obama embraced the same Republican economic assumptions about debts and deficits that got Herbert Hoover in trouble after the 1929 stock market crash.  According to Obama, the United States is like a family. Here are the key lines that came right at the beginning of his speech:

Now every family knows that a little credit card debt is manageable. But, if we stay on the current path, our growing debt could cost us jobs and do serious damage to our economy.

Yes, if, after unemployment has dropped to 6 percent and factories and offices are humming, we continue to stay on the “current path,” we’ll be in trouble. Inflation, higher interest rates—you can look at the end of the 1960s. But we’re not in that situation. We are in a situation where, in order to get out of a continuing slump, we need to continue running deficits and piling up debt. That’s the way we can get into the position where we can get off the current path. Beginning to cut now will cost us jobs and do serious damage to the economy.

In his response, Speaker John Boehner simply picked up Obama’s Hooverian logic and took it to the next step. The “spending binge going on in Washington,” Boehner explained, “is a big part of the reason … millions are looking for work.” Government spending is causing unemployment. That’s ridiculous, but it’s also what Obama said. And Boehner took it a step further, suggesting that the increase in the national debt had “sparked a crisis without precedent in my lifetime or yours.” In other words, the debt was responsible for the crash and the recession. Again, ridiculous, but consistent with the assumptions that Obama allowed to govern his own approach.

Look, politics is fine. It was good to see Obama draw some political lines, and I’d rather see a Democratic president re-elected. But more is at stake here, and the president has to begin to understand this. The country can’t afford more years of high unemployment. It’s not just the human cost. It’s the dark forces of reaction that this kind of unrelenting gloom can unleash in our country. We’re already had a dose of it with the rise of the Tea Party. Obama needs to tell people what’s really wrong with the economy, and what needs to be done. Otherwise, he is not doing his job.

John B. Judis is a senior editor at The New Republic.