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Obama joins parties in painting himself into a corner over debt

By David Gergen, CNN Senior Political Analyst
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • David Gergen: Obama says he will refuse any short-term deal, tying his hands
  • Gergen: As default looms, Republicans refuse to budge on allowing tax cuts
  • Gergen: Democrats insist on tax cuts, reject putting entitlements on the table
  • All sides must climb down a bit, he says; a short-term solution allows more time

Editor's note: David Gergen is a senior political analyst for CNN and has been an adviser to four presidents. He is professor of public service and director of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. Follow him on Twitter: @David_Gergen

(CNN) -- It's hard to remember a simmering crisis when America's political leaders have painted themselves into so many corners, but that's where we are as we face a potential default on our national debt. As leaders return to bargaining Monday afternoon, they had better find their way out soon, or we will pay a fearful price.

The Republicans were the first to paint themselves into a corner. No fewer than 230 members of the House, mostly Republicans, signed pledges during their campaigns that they would refuse to raise taxes when they went to Washington. Their resistance to new taxes is entirely understandable: As The Wall Street Journal editorialized Monday morning, joined by columnist Ross Douthat in The New York Times, conservatives feel strongly that Obama raised spending enormously in the first part of his term and they don't want to become, as they say, tax collectors for the welfare state. And besides, more taxes are on their way through President Obama's health care plan.

But as Speaker John Boehner has discovered in his attempts to forge a grand bargain, their hard-line stance has also made it virtually impossible to negotiate a deal that gives even a little bit to the other side. They have tied their own hands.

The Democrats didn't take long to paint themselves into a corner, too. As debt negotiations have gotten under way, they have become increasingly insistent that they will not accept any significant deficit reduction deal unless it includes a swatch of higher taxes. When Obama raised the stakes last week by putting Medicare and Social Security cuts on the table, Democratic resistance to a mega-deal went sky-high. As a friend mused, their response to entitlement cuts had echoes of "Don't touch my junk."

Obama rejects short-term debt deal, urges compromise

President Obama must be willing to drop his resistance to a short-term bridge solution.
--David Gergen
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Obama, to his credit, has been pushing both sides to come off their hard-line positions and seek compromises. On the substantive issues, he has been the most flexible of any of the players on the field.

It was thus stunning Monday morning that in his press conference, the president painted himself into a different corner, insisting that he would refuse to accept any short-term deal, even one that would be good for 180 days. Clearly, Obama thought he would gain additional leverage with his veto pledge, but in truth, he is now blocking what may be an essential way out if we are to avoid a default.

In effect, we now have three different major actors in this drama standing in their respective corners, insisting that they will not move and demanding that someone else cave. If everyone hangs tough, we will have a disaster.

Howell: President is the best bet to find way out of deadlock

Republican and Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill, fortunately, agree that it is essential to avoid a default on the debt. They are right. But to get there, each side is going to have to give a little. It is impossible to imagine either side doing what it would take to reach a $4 trillion deal; the GOP won't ever agree to tax increases of as much as $800 billion to $1 trillion, nor will Democrats agree to major entitlement cuts. They especially won't do it in the rush of last-minute negotiations over the next few days.

But in the name of fiscal sanity, they may be willing to agree to a much more modest set of compromises -- something that prevents default, allows dust to settle, gives them a chance to build up support back home and keeps negotiating over a longer period of time.

For that to happen, however, Obama must be willing to drop his resistance to a short-term bridge solution. It is never wise for a president to paint himself into a corner of his own making, as he will almost surely learn.

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None of this is pretty. None of it solves the underlying problems. Not long ago, it seemed like the worst of all options. But if the choice comes down to default vs. short-term patch, let's take the patch. To get there, all parties -- Republicans, Democrats and Obama -- must break loose from their corners.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Gergen.

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