President Obama is trying to establish the idea that any default on the national debt will be 100 percent the fault of the House Republicans. He has said, for instance, that Congress must “remove the threat of default and vote to raise the debt ceiling.” The treasury secretary, Jack Lew, said on Sunday that the administration would have “no option” to prevent a default.
But this is nonsense. The president is bound by his oath to uphold the Constitution and, as the distinguished–and liberal–historian Sean Wilentz points out in the New York Times today the 14th Amendment says that “the validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law” is sacrosanct and “shall not be questioned.” He points out that the language was put in the 14th Amendment precisely to prevent Congress from welching on the enormous debt run up during the Civil War.
In an emergency, the president can certainly act to prevent a default, and thus uphold the constitutional mandate. Indeed, he would be violating his oath of office not to.