Obama Acting on the Debt Ceiling Is No Power Grab

The United States cannot afford to be viewed as a nation that does not keep its commitments.

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President Barack Obama gestures as he answers questions during the final news conference of his first term in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Jan. 14, 2013.

So it seems the looming battle of the debt ceiling won't be resolved by a simple coin flip after all.

There was talk—and in Washington, "talk" could start with any mini-mind and escalate from there—that the Obama administration could pay the national debt and get the whole ridiculous fight behind it by simply minting a new, platinum coin worth $1 trillion, then walking it over from the Treasury Department to the Federal Reserve. This is an absurd idea for so many reasons. It would roil the markets, provoke a worse (if that's possible) showdown between the legislative and executive branches, possibly involving the judicial branch as an arbiter. And it would merely underscore to both the country and the world that the United States is utterly incapable of dealing with its own finances.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

President Obama's spokesman, Jay Carney, has said that the president does not think he can ignore the debt ceiling itself. That's a politically responsible and respectful argument, since Congress typically raises the debt ceiling when needed. But it looks less like a power-grab when you're dealing with a Congress that includes people who don't seem to understand what the debt ceiling is—a commitment to pay the bills the government has already incurred, not to increase spending by expanding existing programs or creating new ones. On its face, raising the debt ceiling sounds like you're asking for a higher limit on your credit card. Really, it's saying you're not going to refuse to pay your mortgage and then dare the bank to foreclose on the house.

So it's less offensive for the president to act like the grown-up and just keep paying the nation's bills, even if Congress refuses to OK it. And it would be especially noteworthy given how many Republicans (Ann Romney during the campaign, and Capitol Hill Republicans almost daily) accuse the president of the United States of not being a fully adult person. Hello, pot, are you home? It's me, the kettle, calling. You're black.

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Was the Treasury and the Fed Right to Take the $1 Trillion Coin Off the Table?]

Still, ignoring Congress's inaction could cause a constitutional crisis at a time when members of all three branches are feeling as though they are being either disrespected or sidelined. Obama is smart to avoid aggravating the situation (and making a new coin would make a mockery of the entire monetary system). But Congress needs to be a collective grown-up and step up, as well. The nation cannot afford, literally or metaphorically, to be viewed as a nation that does not keep its commitments.

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