Last Friday night in an address to the Nation, President Joe Biden celebrated the agreement he succeeded in pushing through Congress to enable the US to borrow enough money to pay its existing obligations. He portrayed his handling of the matter in triumphant terms. He claimed he stood his ground against Republican irresponsibility. In fact, the whole saga represents a great failure of leadership, as the Talmud teaches us.
Tractates Shabbat (89b) and Gittin (56b) prescribe two qualities leaders must possess: boldness and vision. As a coda to the story of Shavuot, Tractate Shabbat interprets the prophecy in Isaiah 63:16. The Jews will have sinned. G-d will inform Abraham, who will respond, “The [Jews} should be wiped out.” Next G-d will approach Jacob, who will echo Abraham. G-d will conclude,“The old have no sense and youth lack maturity.” Isaac will come to the rescue.
Understandably, Jacob, who personifies truth (as do the young), would recommend harsh punishment for sinning. But Abraham? After all, he personifies kindness. Moreover, he argued vociferously with G-d in a worse case. Seeking forgiveness for the corruption and depravity in Sodom, Abraham went so far as to urge G-d to consider the merit of any righteous progeny that may be born, even to the end of time.
Leaders over the hill (80 with President Biden), even if sagacious in their prime, lose their capacity to think things through.
The Talmud in Gittin discusses negotiation strategy. The Romans have strangled Jerusalem and the great sage Rabban Yohanan Ben Zakai escapes to meet Vespasian, the commander of the Roman invaders. After impressing Vespasian, the Roman promises to grant his visitor’s wish. Instead of asking the Romans to withdraw, Rabban Yohanan asks that the Romans spare the scholars of Yavneh and the family line of Rabban Gamliel (a descendant of the Davidic dynasty).
R’ Yosef (perhaps R” Akiva) comments that by merely trying to mitigate the damage, Rabban Yohanan lost his bearings. Rabban Yohanan thought Vespasian would have refused and at least the Jews salvaged something. Otherwise, a narrow focus does not behoove a leader.
President BIden’s handling of the debt limit manifests both failures.
The debt ceiling is an artificial construct. Under the US Constitution, Congress levies taxes and appropriates money. If the government must borrow, the Constitution places the “full faith and credit” of the United States behind the obligation to repay creditors. However, through a quirk of history, a law creates a second step, the debt ceiling. Congress must authorize the Executive to borrow the money Congress had previously required the Executive to spend.
In 2011, when Mr. Biden served as vice president, Republicans in the House refused to authorize repayment of our debt, unless President Obama met demands that the extremists could not pass using democratic means. Spending caps resulted and caused suffering.
What Congress enacts Congress can repeal. Knowing in November that a radical Republican Party would take control of the House in January, and with the need to raise the debt limit on the horizon, President Biden should have induced the Democrats, who controlled both chambers, to repeal the debt ceiling in December. Instead, he ignored the problem, and, according to some reports, opposed the idea as “irresponsible.” Though he had a front-row seat in the 2011 debacle, he lacked sense in 2023. Nor did he have a plan for when Republicans threatened default.
Having said he would not negotiate the debt limit, Biden negotiated the debt limit. He negotiated in the model of Rabban Yohanan, but without the excuse that Vespasian held all the power. Default would have harmed Republican donors and corporate supporters and hurt the party electorally. Biden could have acted on advice of scholars and circumvented the debt limit. He should have fought fire with fire.
In the negotiations, he should have demanded tax increases on the rich. Instead, he constricted efforts of the IRS to crack down on rich tax cheaters. He could have clamped down on defense spending. He allowed an increase. Worst of all, he approved a spending freeze this year and a 1% cap for next, and work requirements for certain recipients of food and emergency financial aid. With inflation, the spending levels represent cuts that will harm the poor. Work requirements, which do not increase employment, will lead to starvation and privation for the most vulnerable.
Saying it could have been worse does not excuse failure.