INSIDE WASHINGTON: Fiscal fight, broken politics

Associated Press
El presidente Barack Obama hace una pausa mientras habla sobre el “abismo fiscal” en la Rueda de Negocios, una asociación de líderes empresariales, en Washington, el miércoles 5 de diciembre de 2012.  Obama advirtió el miércoles a los republicanos que desistieran de entablar otra pelea sobre el techo de la deuda de la nación, al declarar que “es un juego que no voy a jugar".  (AP foto/Charles Dharapak)

View gallery

WASHINGTON (AP) — Here we slow again.

Washington's leaders are back to form, playing a petty, peevish and dangerous brand of politics. All that's at stake is the fate of the economy.

Everyone in this town knows how it goes in a time of a standoff: Posture until the deadline, try to win over the public and work over the media, then cut a deal just before disaster strikes. The crises come and go; this one happens to be about the "fiscal cliff," the looming set of tax hikes and blunt spending cuts set to start Jan. 1.

In Washington's view, this is normal. It's as if there is no cost to the brinkmanship as long as all sides come together in time to head off disaster.

But there is a big cost to the American people. The political slog erodes whatever trust and confidence are left in government. Patience gets taken for granted. The world watches warily.

"We're not going to negotiate against ourselves," said President Barack Obama's spokesman, Jay Carney.

"We can't sit here and negotiate with ourselves," said House Speaker John Boehner.

Consider that they both spoke on the same day, without either side answering when or whether they might, say, negotiate together.

Polling already shows more people than not think Obama and Congress will fail, even though failing would mean tax hikes for all and a punch to the gut of the economy. And even if the outcome ends up fine, every day squandered to squabbling is one that could be spent fixing so many other problems.

Remember the election? Just one month ago? When voters re-hired a Democratic president and a Republican-controlled House and ordered them to work together?

The spirit of bipartisanship and sense of urgency that seemed to emerge were pretty much gone by Thanksgiving. This week, Boehner dismissed Obama's economic offer as "la-la land." Carney called Boehner's counter-offer "magic beans and fairy dust."

In this town, such theater is just a regular part of the process. When the president and the speaker of the House had a phone conversation Wednesday, it was considered a breakthrough.

"Unfortunately, polarization, gridlock and dysfunction are now the default settings for politics in Washington," said Bill Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a co-founder of No Labels, a national organization whose mission is get the fractured American political system working again.

"These trends have been decades in the makings. They're deeply embedded now in the cultural fabric of American national politics," he said. "It's not going to be easy to change. But we have to try, because the country is going to pay an increasingly heavy price if we don't."

The favorites of the Washington playbook are all back. Competing press conferences. Campaign-style efforts to build political pressure on the other guys. A gaming out of who will face more heat if everything collapses. A staring contest over which person has to move next. A courting of the media for influence. A simultaneous blaming of the media for focusing on the hidden process.

It is a season of slights and snubs. When Boehner came to a holiday party at the White House on Monday night, he avoided the photo line where members get to talk to the president. The White House, meanwhile, is still peeved that it got a copy of the House Republican offer at roughly the same time Capitol Hill reporters got briefed about it.

"Nothing is going on," House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said Wednesday of the state of talks. "Meanwhile, the people of this country are the ones that suffer."

As they did in watching a divided government take the nation to the brink of default last summer over debt and spending.

Washington tends to act out of procrastination, desperation and political strategy. The final force for compromise is often not the deal itself, but the desire to be done with it.

"Yes, sometimes in this town, folks like to leave things to the last minute," Obama told radio host Tom Joyner. "But when it starts getting close to their Christmas vacation, then things open up."

That's the Washington thinking: The powers that be will compromise, if they have to, in the end. The presumption is that they will again this time. Until then, there are news cycles to win, political leverage to maximize, families to include in photo opportunities.

"There's a bit of inevitable, orchestrated drama in these things," Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner told CNBC.

So cue up the countdown clocks on cable TV and let it all play out until the leaders come together for the hard talks. That's the only solution, Galston said.

"Press conferences and campaign-style events and dueling releases of documents can get you started," he said. "But it runs into a wall pretty damn fast."


EDITOR'S NOTE — AP White House Correspondent Ben Feller has covered the presidencies of Barack Obama and George W. Bush.


Follow Ben Feller on Twitter at

An AP News Analysis

View Comments (132)

Recommended for You

  • Luggage piece found on French island near possible MH370 debris

    Part of a bag was found Thursday on the French Indian Ocean island of La Reunion not far from plane debris which has fuelled speculation it may be from missing flight MH370. "The piece of luggage was here since yesterday but nobody really paid attention," said Johnny Begue, a member of a local…

  • Chicago man cleared after 17 years in prison shot dead

    CHICAGO (AP) — A Chicago man who served 17 years in prison for murder before being cleared of the crime has been shot and killed almost three years after being released from prison, police said Wednesday.

    Associated Press
  • Family Pet-Sitter Helps Herself To Homeowner's Possessions

    DEAR ABBY: A trusted and beloved family member who takes care of my cats -- and therefore has a key to my house -- has been stealing things like cleaning supplies, knickknacks, family pictures, etc. Most of them have little monetary value. But imagine my surprise when I spotted some of my missing…

    Dear Abby
  • Play

    Body cam footage from Cincinnati shooting contradicts official story

    A University of Cincinnati police officer has been indicted for murder after body camera footage contradicted his official story outlining the events that led to the shooting death of unarmed Cincinnati driver Samuel Dubose.

    Reuters Videos
  • An American Dentist Killed Zimbabwe’s Famous Lion

    Cecil the lion, a famous black-maned resident of Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park, died at the hands of an American dentist, conservationists claim. “Mr. Palmer shot Cecil with a bow and arrow but this shot didn't kill him,” Johnny Rodrigues, chairman of the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force, said in…
  • Eight family members decapitated in north Mexico

    Eight people from the same family, including two minors, were kidnapped by masked gunmen and their decapitated bodies were found days later in northern Mexico, authorities said Wednesday. The bodies were found after a ninth member of the Martinez family escaped Sunday's abduction near Casa Quemada,…

  • Russia reassures Israel over Iran nuclear deal

    Russian President Vladimir Putin told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday that the deal on Iran's nuclear program would improve security in the Middle East and guaranteed that Tehran would not acquire nuclear arms. Israel plans to lobby the U.S. Congress not to approve the…

  • Dashcam catches off-duty cop threatening to put 'hole in head' of driver

    Technically Incorrect: A Massachusetts driver makes a wrong turn. What happens next, all filmed on his dashcam, has led to an investigation. And yes, it's now on YouTube.

  • David Cassidy prepares to auction Florida mansion

    FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — Like many of his baby boomer peers with grown children and debts to settle, one-time heartthrob David Cassidy is looking to downsize.

    Associated Press30 mins ago
  • Colorado theater shooter's dad saw wide-eyed smirk before

    CENTENNIAL, Colo. (AP) — James Holmes came home on winter break from graduate school looking haggard and making odd facial expressions, but his father didn't suspect at the time that he was descending into mental illness.

    Associated Press
  • Hidden Security Cameras Are Shocking Surprise For Daughter

    DEAR ABBY: I'm a 19-year-old woman in college who still lives with my parents. I found out something several weeks ago that's bothering me, and I need advice badly. Years ago, after a robbery, my parents installed security cameras outside our house. I knew about them because they were visible. But…

    Dear Abby
  • Four-day week for Georgia public school district: Does it work?

    This is the second consecutive year that the school district is operating with this atypical schedule, and metrics indicate the switch has had a positive effect on the students. “It has increased our discipline, our attendance is good, teacher attendance as well," said Jeff Martin, Chattooga High…

    Christian Science Monitor57 mins ago
  • Play

    Custom truck built by father and son stolen in Lemoore

    A Lemoore man is on the hunt for his stolen pick-up truck. The classic custom ride holds significant sentiment to its owner, who built the truck with his late father.

    KFSN – Fresno
  • Taliban disavows Afghan peace talks after leader declared dead

    By Kay Johnson KABUL (Reuters) - The Taliban's official spokesman disavowed peace talks with the Afghan government on Thursday, throwing fledgling efforts to negotiate an end to 14 years of war into disarray. The statement came a day after the Afghan government said that Mullah Omar, the elusive…

  • Trump leads Republicans, but Democrats thump him: poll

    Bombastic US billionaire Donald Trump handily leads all fellow Republicans in the 2016 presidential race, though Hillary Clinton and other Democrats trump him in head-to-head matchups, a poll said Thursday. Trump plunged into the crowded Republican nomination battle last month, and has since…

  • Internet mauls dentist accused of illegal kill of popular lion

    Technically Incorrect: Walter Palmer, a dentist in Minnesota, has his Yelp entry attacked by those not fond of his allegedly illegal killing of Cecil the lion in Zimbabwe.

  • Jon Stewart signing off 'Daily Show' fake newscast for real

    NEW YORK (AP) — After more than 16 years and nearly 2,600 telecasts, Jon Stewart can feel proud of his scads of Emmys and his pair of Peabody Awards, his cultural gravitas (he hung with the Prez, both on and off the air!), even his reprobate status at Fox News.

    Associated Press