Reading between the lines of Obama's U.N. speech

President Barack Obama addresses the 68th session of the United Nations General Assembly, Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2013.
AP Photo/Richard Drew

This post originally appeared in National Journal.

As extraordinary as it sounds, President Obama addressed the United Nations General Assembly about America's role in the world while heads of state knew that the leader of the globe's most powerful military and economy might soon preside over a shuttered government teetering on the edge of default.

That Washington is numbed to shutdown scenarios in no way undercuts their severity. Just the opposite. The worst occurs when the unacceptable becomes banal.

Shutting down the government, or threatening to do so, should not and cannot become an autumnal ritual. The object of government is governing. Governing requires, at minimum, an orderly process of spending, taxing, and regulating. This requires a deference to and reverence of separation of powers.

No party or lawmaker can claim fidelity to principle or ideology who does not first respect the process by which disputes are legislatively resolved. The path to resolution is paved with votes cast in public that produce workable, durable majorities or supermajorities. Either you have the votes or you know how to find them. Lacking either, you have the perpetual pestilence of posturing.

When House Republicans cannot pass a transportation bill that conforms to their own budget resolution, that is a failure of basic governing. It also makes a mockery of Speaker John Boehner's now-brittle bromides about "regular order." Setting aside the substance of the transportation bill, any majority party that rejects a spending bill that adheres to its budget is admitting--in public--it is serious about aspiration and unserious about execution. House Republicans have passed budget-adhering spending bills on defense, energy and water, homeland security, and veterans. Politically, these are the four easiest and a confession of appropriations impotence elsewhere. Senate Democrats haven't passed any spending bills because the leadership seeks spending targets higher than the current sequestration limits.

To avert a government shutdown, votes must be found to pass a continuing resolution that, for some duration, keeps basic services operating. The same is true to avoid a default on Treasury debt obligations. The resolution of the former could well influence resolution of the latter: A deal to avoid a shutdown could bring with it a wink-and-nod agreement to use the debt-ceiling process to resolve festering issues over sequestration.

But only if both sides see a different possibility than the ones now before them.

In this regard, Obama's remarks to the General Assembly might well have been addressed to congressional leaders--if he were actually meeting with them, that is. Or they could have been recited in front of a mirror. This is not to say that another White House meeting would resolve the conflict or that Obama is the sole, or even principal, source of disunity and dysfunction.

But presidents are not immune from executive responsibility. Politically, Obama can deflect blame and make Republicans "own" a shutdown or default. But he cannot avoid the economic consequences or the diminution of U.S. leadership authority at a time when America seeks to project power and influence in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia.

In his address at the U.N., Obama spoke of the end of the Iraq war and the winding down of the war in Afghanistan, saying the decisions to withdraw from both nations mean that America is "shifting away from a perpetual war footing."

Obama and Republicans in Congress must ask themselves how much longer the country they profess to love and seek to govern can endure with "a perpetual war footing" on spending. The inability to pass appropriations bills ought to be an admission of surrender. Votes need to be found to pass different bills.

In discussing geopolitics in a post-Cold War era, Obama told the General Assembly that resolving conflicts is "not a zero-sum endeavor." Neither is dodging a government shutdown or default. Republicans want to defund Obamacare but cannot. The president has already changed parts of the law or delayed timelines for implementation. An exchange of executive fiat for permanent legislative language, or removal of a medical-devices tax, could create a legislative opening.

On historically intractable matters such as peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians, or emerging conflicts in nearly failed states in Africa, Obama said the world will confront some "very tough choices" that will in some cases be "imperfect."

This is absolutely true of the shutdown and default scenarios. Particularly the default scenario. Obama has said repeatedly he won't negotiate over raising the soon-to-expire debt ceiling. The question is, will he negotiate over an end to sequestration in the context of raising the debt ceiling? The mathematics of a post-sequester budget future are visible if not yet politically attainable: entitlement changes such as reducing future cost-of-living adjustments for Social Security and other federal benefits (already in Obama's budget) and some minor tax increases as part of a first take on tax reform that also cuts corporate or individual rates.

On global issues--fighting terrorism, confronting the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and climate change--Obama said all nations must change: "We must get better--all of us--at the policies that prevent the breakdown of basic order."

Brushes with government shutdowns and default are fundamentally a breakdown of basic order. They wound the economy and diminish U.S. prestige.

On Syria's denial that it used chemical weapons against civilian populations on Aug. 21, Obama characterized President Bashar al-Assad's refusal to accept blame as "an insult to human reason."

So, too, is this now-dangerous autumn dance with government failure. It is an insult to reason, history, and the elegant legislative machinery our ancestors bequeathed us.

Buried within Obama's speech to the world was a speech to ourselves. Time to heed it and restore basic order.