The spectacle of a political system unable to produce a viable budget agreement -- even as the government threatens to come to a halt and the entire country appears to be on the verge of recession -- has revealed an accumulation of what many feel are much deeper national problems.

A weak presidency in a time of domestic strain, a Democratic Party unequipped to debate national policy, a deepening partisan confict over the basics of economic policy, and an electorate under intensifying economic pressure after decades of rising consumption have merged in the budget debacle.

As President Bush and Congress continue to struggle to bring down the deficit, a set of closely linked developments suggest that the achievement of anything approaching a national consensus has become an increasingly difficult goal.

House rejection of the budget plan after Bush made his first direct appeal to the American electorate for support was a grave blow to the core of presidential power. In the American system of checks and balances, presidential authority in domestic matters depends heavily on the power of the bully pulpit, now especially through television, to control the direction of government policy.

Jody Powell, who watched an erosion of presidential power while serving as press secretary to President Carter, said: "Any time you get beat, it makes people inclined to think they can beat you again. The more people are inclined to take you on, that may be as serious for him {Bush} within his own party as it is within the Democrats."

Another experienced political observer, Robert S. Strauss, former chairman of the Democratic National Committee and, at 71, one of the grand old men of the Washington Establishment, said, "You and I know that when they smell blood in the water, they go in this town. You and I know this {the 254-179 House vote Friday morning rejecting the budget agreement} was an event. I don't want to characterize it yet because it is too soon, but compared to good and bad, it ain't good."

Strauss did not identify who "they" -- the blood smelling sharks circling the nation's capital -- are, but a collection of forces in Washington eat away at presidential power.

Among them are the "K Street lobbies" and political action committees (PACs); such deeply partisan figures as conservative Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), whose agenda supersedes that of his president; the bureaucracy and the powerful constituencies it serves; and the ambitious in both parties who see any weakening of the presidency as enlarging their own opportunities.

"We may have seen a Republican House whip 'Carterize' his own president," one Republican strategist remarked with amazement, referring to Gingrich's defection from the budget plan, a development that accelerated the hemorrhaging of Republican and Democratic support for the budget package.

In his own comments yesterday, Bush almost seemed to be seeking to reinforce the sense of presidential weakness:

"I think it's very important that our able team, in whom I have total confidence, stay in touch" with House and Senate negotiators seeking to put a new budget together. "But we're not going to force our way in. This is the business of the Congress. The American people know that. They know that the president doesn't pass the budget, and doesn't vote on all this stuff. It's the Congress that does it."

At the same time, the budget process has revealed the glaring weaknesses of the congressional wing of the Democratic Party as it attempts to set national economic policy.

Facing a Republican president in the 10th year of GOP control of the White House and a wing of the Republican Party driven by the goal of forcing a GOP takeover of Congress, Democratic leaders discovered they could rely neither on the backing of their congressional rank and file, especially in the Senate, nor on the increasingly frayed loyalties of the voters.

The party leaders' weaknesses in the bargaining process are reflected by voter assessments of the Democratic Party. From the 1930s to the years of the Carter administration, decisive majorities of the public viewed the Democrats as better able to provide prosperity and to protect the "little guy."

Now, according to Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg, voters see the GOP as better able than the Democrats to "keep the country prosperous" by 39 to 24 percent, and the Democratic advantage as the party "on your side" has slipped to a statistically insignificant 5 percentage points, 37 to 32 percent.

In a year when voters are showing increasingly strong anti-incumbent sentiments -- with firm backing for referenda limiting terms -- the ability of House and Senate Democratic negotiators to stand tall for Democratic principle is severely constricted. Instead, the Democratic negotiators made concession after concession in the final days of the budget summit, ultimately agreeing to place the heaviest burdens on voters making from $20,000 to $50,000, just those the party has been struggling to win back.

The decline of public support for the Democrats threatens the ability of the party even to capitalize on a recession, as it did regularly from the Great Depression, through the recessions of the Eisenhower years to the 1981-82 recession in Ronald Reagan's first term.

The Republican Party, in turn, has split into a governing party led by George Bush and a revolutionary wing, led by Gingrich and allies in both the House and in the conservative movement, determined to take over Congress for the GOP.

Bush's goal clearly is to put together a budget package allowing the continued operation of government while attempting to reduce the size of the deficit. "What counts {politically} is how people are affected, whether we solve specific problems and how people on the ground feel," said Robert Teeter, a polling expert who advises the White House. It was this pragmatic view that led to the abandonment of the "no new taxes" pledge.

For Gingrich and his allies, in contrast, issues such as taxes, spending and all the elements of the budget negotiations are ideal vehicles to create divisions and conflicts with the Democrats, and to define the opposition as "pro-tax, pro-spending."

For Gingrich, then, a failed budget process is an opportunity to build voter perceptions of the Democratic congressional majority as ineffective and incompetent.

While leaders of the two parties in Washington have drawn deep lines in the sand on their differences over economic policy -- lines that are in many ways irreconcilable, pitting tax progressivity against investment incentives, and rich against poor -- segments of the electorate have developed similar irreconcilable conflicts over attempts to reduce the deficit.

On one hand, many voters reject the notion that they should pay the costs of reducing a deficit that politicians created. On the other hand, as pollster Geoff Garin noted in a memo to members of Congress, "if there is no budget settlement and a long sequester results, an explosive reaction against incumbents is a real possibility."

Over the past decade, these interrelated conflicts have resulted in closed-door summits in which there are very few participants. This year, that technique has so far failed.

Former Senate majority leader and White House chief of staff Howard H. Baker Jr. (R-Tenn.), who went through four such semi-secret budget summits, said, "Sooner or later, budget agreements reached behind closed doors, without broad participation, will be rebelled against." Along similar lines, Stuart E. Eizenstadt, former domestic affairs adviser to Carter, said House rejection of the budget package "was a direct function of the summit itself in short-circuiting the normal legislative process."

The public, head-on negotiations that Baker and Eizenstadt are calling for, however, can occur only when the political-economic logjam that led to the secrecy in the first place is broken. "The absence of party cohesion makes it very difficult for the leadership to get anything lined up," said Harry C. McPherson, an aide to Lyndon B. Johnson in the 1960s.