Unable to Deal With Each Other, Obama and Boehner Invade Prime Time

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“I won’t bore you,” President Obama said, as he broke into America’s prime time TV lineup on Monday night. This was ironic, because he went on to talk about Triple A credit ratings, Dwight Eisenhower and the debt limit. If not for him, America could have been slouching toward another Law & Order rerun, or watching a British guy with hair plugs yell about food, or a bachelorette in Fiji pretend that exhibitionist polygamy was a workable method for discovering true love.

In fact, President Obama had come to bore us all. He had no new announcement to make, no breakthroughs to share, no facts to utter that had not already been uttered. He spoke 2,264 words with a single purpose: To posture in public for political advantage on the issue of reining in federal deficits and raising the debt ceiling. This too was ironic. Pretty much the only thing most Americans dislike more than being governed by people who can’t get important stuff done are politicians who posture in the meantime. “I believe that enough members of both parties will ultimately put politics aside and help us make progress,” Obama said. Just not yet.

The President, of course, was not alone in his trespass. It takes two to make a “stalemate,” after all, which incidentally was the unfortunate metaphor Obama used for the state of our nation, a term from chess that means both players have exhausted their ability to move and the game is over. Obama’s political rival, House Speaker John Boehner, followed the President’s appearance on the boob tube with an address of his own, filled with even more biting zingers meant to win the same political high ground. The Speaker said, “The President would not take yes for an answer.” And, “He wants a blank check.” And even, “The bigger the government, the smaller the people.”

(MORE: Six Possible Paths Ahead in the Debt-Ceiling Debate)

The spectacle that ensued was of exactly the sort that this nation has come to expect from Washington. But it was not without merit, however disrupting it might have felt to the viewing public and to marketers of smart phones and dish washing detergent. The two presentations, though similar in form and structure, differed mightily in substance. By the end of the evening, the two men brought clarity to the divide now threatening the country.

To understand what transpired, it is important to first recap the absurdity of the current crisis that grips Washington, the nation and the world. Given the results of the last three elections, neither Republicans nor Democrats have the ability to get anything done alone. Democrats control the Senate. Republicans control the House. Both bodies must pass a bill to make it a law, and barring an unlikely supermajority, all laws need the signature of the President. In the current circumstance, this means something very simple: Neither Obama nor Boehner can do anything legislatively without the other’s consent.

Knowing this, Boehner has decided to threaten a small but significant crime of inaction, which if carried out will certainly mean economic devastation for millions of Americans, who will see the cost of borrowing money rise, and dramatic diminishment of the United State’s economic place in the world. The vehicle for this economic Armageddon is called the debt limit extension, which is little more than a piece of paper allowing the U.S. government to borrow enough money to pay for things Congress has already agreed to buy. In exchange for this piece of paper, Boehner wants a dramatic shift in the size, composition and goals of the federal government. Obama, for his part, has decided to embrace the showdown as an opportunity to make some changes that he also sees as good for the country.

(MORE: Eight Days Till Debt Armageddon: Democrats and Republicans Forge Ahead on Divergent Paths)

To make things more strange, both Boehner and Obama have been crystal clear that they are, under no circumstances, actually willing to follow through with this course of events. Some extension must be passed. And so the nation has been taken hostage, while the hostage takers swear over and again that they would never even think of pulling the trigger. One thing is certain: In the next week or so, Obama and Boehner will come to some sort of agreement. Whether the agreement they reach makes any sense as policy, and whether it comes too late to avoid lingering ill effects on America’s economic reputation, remain open questions. But the fact that at least one of them will bend is without question.

Now the interesting part, and the thing that was on full display Tuesday night, is that the two men have very different ideas of how that end game will play out. For Obama, it will come about by both sides giving up ground and compromising. In fact, his address to the country was an homage to the concept of compromise, packaged in a political denunciation of Republican priorities.

“Do you know what people are fed up with most of all?” Obama asked, in a room that had been cleared of all but a few reporters. “They’re fed up with a town where compromise has become a dirty word.  They work all day long, many of them scraping by, just to put food on the table.  And when these Americans come home at night, bone-tired, and turn on the news, all they see is the same partisan three-ring circus here in Washington.  They see leaders who can’t seem to come together and do what it takes to make life just a little bit better for ordinary Americans.  They are offended by that.  And they should be.”

(MORE: Two Compromises)

Boehner, meanwhile, seemed to dismiss the idea of compromise as little more than a fleecing of the American people. “The President has often said we need a ‘balanced’ approach — which in Washington means: we spend more, you pay more.” Instead, Boehner promised to pass a bill out of the House largely along party lines which Senate leaders and President Obama have already said is not acceptable. “I expect that bill can and will pass the Senate, and be sent to the President for his signature,” Boehner said, ignoring the fact that Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, said clearly on Monday that this was not the case.

For Boehner, the concept of compromise was trumped by the need to force change to the way the country spends money. In this way, he seemed to confirm what Obama had said in his speech just moments earlier, when he accused Boehner of breaking with a long American tradition of Washington deal making proportionate to legislative power. “Today, many Republicans in the House refuse to consider this kind of balanced approach,” Obama said, “an approach that was pursued not only by President Reagan, but by the first President Bush, President Clinton, myself, and many Democrats and Republicans in the United States Senate.”

There are political reasons for the different approaches. Obama is focused on courting independent voters, who are less ideological and more interested in compromise, for his reelection bid in 2012. Boehner is focused on protecting his House caucus members from low-turnout primary challenges from the right flank of the conservative movement. Public polling makes clear that Republicans, far more than Democrats, see compromise as little more than an abandonment of principle.

(MORE: Mixed Response from GOP as Boehner Pushes Unilateral Debt Plan)

In this way, the standoff is not a zero sum game, at least for the moment. By butting heads, by refusing to do what both admit must be done, by interrupting a night of mindless television viewing for partisan badmouthing, Obama and Boehner both had the ability to find political advantage. Both men came before the country Monday to escalate the battle between them because what is good for the country is not, at the moment, good for them.

And so the posturing is likely to continue, for a few days more at least. And the American people will have to deal with the consequences, whether they show up in their credit card interest payments or on their televisions. As soon as Obama and Boehner were done with the cameras, ABC cut quickly back to an interrupted episode of the Bachelorette, where the lady romantic was facing rejection from a particularly goofy looking suitor. “If we are going to be honest about it, this means the end of the road,” the guy said, sort of pretending to care. “Well the truth is that I am glad that you are real about it,” she responded, as if it mattered.

If only the theater of politics were as simple to resolve as specious romances on reality television. Boehner and Obama, alas, don’t have the option of breaking up with each other, nor do the American people have the ability to simply walk away. We are all stuck together, at least until the next elections in November of 2012. And at some point, this political standoff will end and we will all have to live with the result.