President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, took their offices with the promise of reconciliation and productivity. Instead, the government of the most powerful nation on earth is about to run out of money and shut down, putting thousands out of work and shutting down everything from military pay to the National Zoo.
How did it—this incompetence—get this bad? After all, the fight over about $7 billion in differences in this year's budget is about 0.2 percent of the $3.5 trillion federal budget. It's like a family making $100,000 falling apart over $200. And then there's the fighting over intractable issues like abortion, as if either party was about to renounce long-held philosophies and faiths.
One can't blame Obama and Boehner entirely. After all, Washington's growing partisanship has been years in the making. House districts are more partisan than ever. Few have incentive to compromise.
The shutdown of the 90s rebounded to Bill Clinton's benefit but there's no guarantee that a Democratic president will benefit this time. Boehner is not a quasi prime minister like Newt Gingrich was, recognizable to all Americans. Obama is the face of the government and now it's less about hope than stalemate. It may not be the commander-in-chief's fault, but it's surely his burden now.
For his part, Boehner, who rose in the House as a deal maker, a hard-core conservative who nevertheless knew how to keep things moving, now seems increasingly strapped by the raucous tea partiers who propelled him into the speaker's chair. It's hard to see how he could do anything but play brinkmanship until the last minute.
And the last minute is almost where we are. As Obama said when he raced to the microphones after Thursday night's negotiations, the machinery of shutdown has begun. The BlackBerrys are about to be turned off. The passports won't be issued. The tax returns won't come. Those Americans who disdain government in the abstract are about to have their contempt put to the test. Of course, Congress and the president will continue to be paid.
It could well be that a deal is achieved at the last minute or that the shutdown, should it befall the capital, lasts only a few hours or constitutes a lost weekend.
But the damage has been done to both parties and to both Obama and Boehner. Neither's ability to get things done will ever be accepted at face value again. Their capacities as leaders has been tried and found wanting. That doesn't mean that neither won't rebound in popularity. But Americans' faith in authority, in institutions, has been dealt a blow. The financial crisis was built, in part, on financial institutions that relied on overnight funding to finance their casino-like gamble on ever-rising housing prices. Now the White House and the Hill have played a similar game of chicken. But unlike Americans who save their taxes for the last minute, this time procrastination and pathology have real-life consequences for an Ohioan and a Hawaiian—and for the rest of us too.
Correction: The original version of this article mistated the parallels between the budget fight and a family making $100,000.