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A lose-lose political proposition on the debt ceiling debate

at 06:52 PM ET, 07/22/2011


President Barack Obama makes a statement in the Brady Briefing Room at the White House in Washington, Friday, July 22, 2011 on the break down of debt ceiling talks. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
The death of a grand bargain on raising the debt ceiling — announced moments ago by President Obama — not only heightens the policy stakes as the default deadline rapidly approaches but creates the very real possibility that the issue will be a major political loser for everyone involved.

“We have now run out of time,” Obama said in a hastily called public event Friday evening in which he was barely able to contain his anger at the inability of the two sides to cut a deal.

He said he planned to bring the Congressional leaders of both parties to the White House on Saturday at 11 a.m. to figure out whether there was a way forward to avoid default.

While sources in Congress suggested that a smaller bore deal was likely since no one wanted to risk the political and financial consequences of default, the process of negotiating a debt ceiling increase has been so unpredictable that predicting the future outcome is a dangerous game.

What’s less difficult to predict is that the blame game that will dominate the news over the next 48-72 hours — and likely beyond that — will further sour people on the federal government and the politicians who operate within it.

And that’s very bad news for both parties.

There is already widespread discontent with how Washington works. In a Washington Post.\/ABC News poll released earlier this week, 80 percent — yes, 80! — of people said they were either angry or dissatisfied with the way the Washington works. That was the highest angry/dissatisfied number since 1992 in Post/ABC polling.

That same poll showed that 63 percent of registered voters said they preferred to look for “someone else” other than their current incumbent when they vote for Congress in 2012 — the highest that number has ever been in Post/ABC polling.

So, even before the debt deal collapsed, the level of discontent with the government broadly and the performance of Congress specifically was at historic lows. And the nastiness that will fill peoples’ television screens over the next days — and perhaps even after a smaller-sized deal is cut — will only add to that disgust with Washington and everyone who works there.

That sentiment virtually ensures that neither Obama nor Congressional Republicans will emerge politically bolstered from this protracted fight over the country’s budget priorities.

For Obama, the lack of a big deal undermines his political brand which is directly tied to the idea that he can make government work for people again.

Obama is at his best when he is big, when he can point to major policy victories that back up his soaring rhetoric. Angry press conferences — like the one he just held — may enliven the Democratic base but do little to help him with moderate and independents voters who are regarded by both sides as critical to a 2012 victory.

For Republicans, their victories in 2010 were conditional — at best. Party strategists admitted in the wake of those wins that the public remained skeptical about their ability to responsibly play a role in governance and that the work of the next two years was to prove they were ready to lead.

With Obama seemingly committed to using the bully pulpit afforded him by the presidency to castigate Republicans as intransigent and in the pocket of the tea party, GOP congressional leaders now have a tall task to prove to the public that putting the kybosh on a deal was actually the responsible thing to do.

It’s possible that the eventual deal — if there is one — will change public perception and convince people that Washington does actually work.

But, it’s not the likeliest scenario — not by a long shot. And, the nastier the fight gets in Washington, the more likely voters, already mad as hell, decide not to take it anymore. That spells trouble for any and every elected official in both parties.

 
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