The bipartisan budget deal was a welcome exception to congressional gridlock. It was not, unfortunately, an indication that gridlock has been broken in any lasting or fundamental way.
House Speaker John Boehner publicly lost his temper with tea party groups because their political strategy — demonstrated in the manifest failure of the government shutdown — neglected to specify a path to victory. In selling the budget deal to Republican lawmakers, Boehner and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan proposed such a path: Keep the public spotlight on the cascading failures of the Affordable Care Act instead of drawing attention to GOP brinkmanship and internal divisions.
This was the appeal — avoid self-destruction while your opponent is self-destructing — that ended up persuading two-thirds of the Republican Study Committee (the House’s conservative caucus) and should secure the requisite number of Senate Republican votes. It is a perfectly rational political argument. But it is hardly the prelude to future legislative ambition.
Put another way: The budget agreement was passed by the House precisely because it was small — small in its discretionary spending increases, in its entitlement adjustments and in controversial ideological content. It was not a precedent for grand compromises on immigration or tax reform. We are seeing a truce in the budget wars, not the emergence of a centrist governing coalition.
The budget agreement was also notable for the role played by President Obama — which was pretty much none at all. He was marginal to the deal, which had almost nothing to do with his policy priorities.
Given the inherent powers of the office, a president is never fully or finally irrelevant. President George W. Bush, for example, was at a low ebb of popularity and political influence when he pursued the troop surge in Iraq. For a consequential foreign policy decision, or at a time of national crisis, the chief executive makes a sudden return to indispensability.
But Obama now risks permanent damage to his standing as a leader. His main legislative achievement, the Affordable Care Act, is broadly tarnished or politically toxic. Polls indicate growing questions about Obama’s credibility and competence — mainly because of the contrast between the way Obamacare was sold and the way it has been implemented. (In a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey, just 37 percent of Americans gave Obama high marks for being “honest and straightforward.”) Though the midterm elections are still a ways off, control of the Senate could easily switch. A Republican Senate majority would make Obama the lamest of ducks.
The relatively minor White House personnel adjustments the president has so far announced convey little sense of urgency. And his main problem is not personnel-related. It is the messy, unfolding reality of Obamacare. Uptake remains anemic — at last official count, about 3 million short of the administration’s 3.3 million year-end goal. New regulations have caused disruptions in health insurance markets, including lost and restricted coverage and premium increases. The president did little to prepare Americans for these predictable outcomes, making it difficult for him to credibly argue that these costs are worth the benefits (which, for some Americans, they are). And speaking of costs, Obamacare’s new taxes begin to bite this coming year.
So, the president (with suspect credibility and competence) is weakened, while Republicans in Congress (with doubts about their compassion and willingness to compromise) are highly unpopular. American politics seems like a contest of two exhausted boxers. Both have made serious mistakes. Both have been unable (so far) to deliver a decisive blow. Sometimes (as in the budget deal) they hang on to each other to keep from falling down.
Over the years, the policy effects of this political exhaustion have been surprisingly mixed. On fiscal issues, the legislative clinches have added up. In recent years, the two parties have agreed to just more than $2 trillion in reduced spending (over 10 years) and raised taxes by about $700 billion during the same period — cutting the 10-year deficit in half. In the absence of serious entitlement reform, America’s long-term fiscal prognosis remains disastrous. But the shorter-term deficit is in significantly better shape.
Yet on domestic policy — including immigration and issues related to economic opportunity and mobility — little gets accomplished. Democrats have few results to show since the 2010 election. Republicans, meanwhile, have conducted a debilitating, internal debate over whether the crafting of domestic policy is even an appropriate federal role.
America is a nation with serious public challenges — and a political class exhausted by minimal exertions.