WASHINGTON — Is this any way to run a government?
The politicians will pat themselves for finally reaching an agreement to ward off a looming budget crisis. But after taking the country to the brink of a potentially cataclysmic debt default, Washington politicians look more like a dysfunctional reality TV family than sober stewards of the government.
Played out against the backdrop of $14 trillion in debt and a nagging jobs crisis, the summer debate laid bare the enduring mess in Washington.
It was created by an electorate that's sent two very different messages in the elections of 2008 and 2010, aggravated by a Democratic president who made a late turn from big spender to deficit hawk, and complicated by a Republican Party torn between let's-make-a-deal conservatives and uncompromising tea party activists.
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Whatever short-term political victories are claimed in the debt fight, the potentially enduring fallout is a political system destined for partisan gridlock at least until voters can break the deadlock in the 2012 elections — if they come down solidly for one side.
"Never in my memory have both parties and both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue appeared as dysfunctional as they do today," veteran political analyst Charles Cook wrote days ago for the National Journal.
"The stakes are so high and the performance is so utterly disappointing. The goals of most of the debt-ceiling proposals being debated are so modest that victory would really be a defeat in terms of what needs to be done."
Indeed, the deal negotiated Sunday — after weeks of brinksmanship — would leave until later the big problems such as Social Security and Medicare, whose finances must be overhauled as the population ages.
Deficits would continue for the coming decade, and the debt would continue to rise — just not as much as if there is no deal.
Obama struggled throughout the weeks of clashes.
He came to the debt debate late. After spending the first two years of his term pushing greater federal spending to fight the effects of a deep recession, he largely ignored recommendations to cut deficits by his own bipartisan commission headed by Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, and did not propose any significant deficit reductions in his Feb. 1 budget proposal to Congress. His budget envisioned the debt rising by $9 trillion over 10 years.
And when he first asked Congress to increase the government's debt ceiling — to allow more borrowing to pay bills already in the pipeline — he insisted it be done without any conditions as it had been done routinely for decades.
Only after the Republican-controlled House of Representatives demanded offsetting spending cuts over the next 10 years to match any increase in the debt ceiling did Obama change course and enter negotiations.
He pressed for tax increases along with spending cuts, but did not prevail. After Republicans walked out of White House talks claiming they could not negotiate with Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, a veteran of the Senate, stepped in.
"The perception is that the president has abrogated leadership," said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political scientist at the University of Southern California. "He lost it when he sort of blew off the Bowles-Simpson commission. He could have used it as a starting point."
Also, Obama was somewhat captive to the left wing of the Democratic Party, knowing his approval ratings are low and that he'll need a big turnout from liberals in what could be a very close re-election contest next year.
Thus, when he and the Republicans appeared close to a deal more than a week ago — one that included Republican approval of $800 billion in increased tax revenues over 10 years — Obama came under pressure to make the package more acceptable to liberal Democrats. He proposed adding $400 billion more in taxes — or scaling back cuts in entitlement spending. The Republicans broke off the talks.
At the same time, Obama found himself unable to move the public.
Polls showed a majority of Americans sided with him in pressing for higher taxes from wealthy Americans as part of any deal. Yet despite frequent public appearances to press that approach, Obama saw his approval rating drop to 40 percent last week in the Gallup Poll, the lowest of his presidency. It had reached 50 percent in June.
"When he's gone out front, he's dropped even further, which gives him even less leverage," said George Edwards, a scholar of the presidency at Texas A&M University.
Assuming they can reach a deal and get it through Congress, Republicans can claim some success at forcing the government to start reining in spending.
Yet Congress did even worse than Obama in the public's eyes.
While 41 percent of Americans approved of the way Obama was handling the debt talks, just 31 percent approved of the performance by House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and only 23 percent approved of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., according to Gallup.
The debate underscored the stresses within the Republican Party between the establishment — represented by Boehner — and the ascendant tea party members whose victories in 2010 helped the party win control of the House.
Boehner wanted to forge a deal that would increase the government's borrowing authority to pay its bills; many tea party members said they'd oppose any increase in the debt ceiling even if it forced immediate deep cuts.
"It's time for tough love," said Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., chair of the House Tea Party Caucus and a candidate for her party's presidential nomination.
Beyond their obvious differences in their prescriptions for the nation's fiscal woes, Boehner found it difficult to wrangle the tea party Republicans in part because the Republican establishment didn't help elect them. In some cases, tea party members won their seats by defeating establishment candidates.
Also, Boehner did not have one of the tools for corralling votes that predecessors had. New rules aimed at curbing pork barrel spending eliminated the special spending appropriations for individual districts.
Ultimately, though, the spectacle that was Washington over the last month is more about the great chasm between the two major parties than about the performance of Obama, Boehner or individual members.
"The parties are as far apart as they've been since reconstruction," said Edwards at Texas A&M. "There are very few people in the middle. It's very hard to compromise. And there are personal animosities. The Republican Party, for example, is more Ann Coulter than Ronald Reagan. It is very much harder."
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