If default would be a catastrophe, why is Obama opposed to a short-term deal that would avert it?

I tossed that question out on Twitter this morning and no one had an answer. Verum Serum and Ace have been thinking the same thing and they don’t have answers either. Simple question: If, as the White House insists, hitting the debt ceiling would be the economic equivalent of an asteroid hitting the Earth, and if the only way to avoid that (i.e. the only way to get something through the House) is with a scaled-down bill that would raise the ceiling only until mid-2012, why isn’t the Lightbringer okay with that? Granted, it would mean he’d have to face another asteroid next year in the middle of the campaign, but so what? How is that a reason to let this asteroid hit right now?

To put it another way, is there any policy reason why Obama won’t agree to a short-term deal or is this really as horribly cynical as it looks — that he simply refuses to do anything that might complicate his reelection campaign, even if that means a default by the United States? Jake Tapper pressed Carney about that in today’s briefing — which is worse, default or a short-term deal? — and Carney actually said, no joke, “Both are bad; I can’t choose which is worse for you.” In a sane world, that answer would shatter the White House narrative that hitting the ceiling is an avoid-at-all-costs risk since, evidently, the Perpetual Campaigner thinks another slugfest over this next year is a greater risk than defaulting now would be. The only policy rationale I can come up with for his position is that, in the middle of a brutal campaign, the two sides will be even further dug in than they are now such that there’ll be zero chance of a deal next year compared to the very, very slim chance that there is for one now. But who knows if that’s true: If the presidential race is tight at the time, which is likely, brinksmanship will be extremely risky for both sides lest a default occur and their party be blamed by the public right before the election. In fact, if the economy is still sluggish and the GOP nominee is benefiting in the polls, Republicans will have added incentive not to risk their political advantage by going to the wall on the debt ceiling. So there’s no reason to think Debt Ceiling II would necessarily be bloodier than Debt Ceiling I. The only sure thing is that it would take away time from Obama to fundraise and campaign, which, I guess, is worth gambling the full faith and credit of the U.S. government on.

Chuck Schumer, among other liberals, has innocently wondered whether the GOP is deliberately trying to tank the economy for political advantage, so let me repay the kindness here. Is Obama drawing the line on short-term deals because he thinks that, if it comes to this, he might be able to spin a default next month for electoral gain? There’s already reason to believe that voters will blame the GOP if we hit the ceiling; if that’s so, then O has a ready-made scapegoat for his biggest political liability next year. Unemployment still above nine percent come fall 2012? Why, that’s the Republicans’ fault for letting America default, the DNC will say. If only we’d reached a debt-ceiling deal, you see, then we never have had that jolt and unemployment would be below eight percent and dropping. That’s what Obama’s economists will claim. You trust his economists to tell you the truth about unemployment, don’t you?

Needless to say, the House’s next move now should be to pass a short-term debt-ceiling increase keyed to something like $1.5 trillion in spending cuts and dare Obama to veto it. That would accomplish the same thing as McConnell’s plan, basically, by putting the decision on the ceiling squarely in The One’s court. If he’s so appallingly self-centered that he’d veto an opportunity to avert default simply to avoid making his own life tougher next year, then let’s make sure everyone knows that. And if House Republicans are unhappy with such a small bill, good news: The “big” bill was kind of a joke anyway. I’ll leave you with this video of Reid dumping on Eric Cantor on the Senate floor this morning, which is the latest attempt by Democrats to confound the Republican caucus by driving a wedge between him and Boehner. That’s another example of them putting politics above policy: If getting something passed to avert a default is paramount and the House is the big stumbling block in that endeavor, all this does is slow things down further by aggravating tensions among the GOP and reducing Boehner’s “moderate” leverage. And yet, here Reid is anyway. Go figure.