Welcome to the bottom of the fiscal cliff.
With the failure of Congress and the White House to meet their self-imposed deadline, the nation fell over the cliff just as the ball fell in Times Square.
And yet, despite all of the dire warnings, no one looks particularly squished. That’s because Washington doesn’t operate according to Earth logic. It’s like when Wile E. Coyote steps off a falling boulder at just the right moment to be able to walk away from the impact unscathed. Or perhaps he lands on a trampoline. Of course, in such situations he’s usually then flattened by an unexpected follow-up boulder or smashed against the underside of the cliff on the bounce from the trampoline. Or perhaps some of his Acme equipment performs in such a way that invites yet another investigation from the Consumer Products Safety Commission.
Metaphorically speaking, these are all possible outcomes in the coming days. For in cartoonish Washington, what remains certain is continued uncertainty. In the near term, House Republicans may reject the Senate deal hammered out by Vice President Biden and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and passed in the wee hours this morning. Or they may amend the agreement, making it unpalatable to the Senate or to the president.
In the longer term, one guaranteed outcome of this not-so-grand bargain is that we will have many more showdowns and budget crises in the weeks and months ahead. In other words, cheer up for the worst is yet to come.
Perhaps the surest indication that Washington operates on the kooky side of the looking glass now is the sudden, even disturbing, revelation that the sanest, most grown-up and responsible person in the White House is … Joe Biden.
To be delicate about it, Biden is not famous for having an ironclad grip on reality. He told a man in a wheelchair, “Stand up, Chuck, let ’em see ya.” He proclaimed Brussels, Belgium, “the capital of the free world.” He reminisced with Katie Couric about the time President Roosevelt went on TV after the stock market crash of 1929 to reassure the American people – a time when FDR wasn’t president and the American people didn’t have TVs. He seems to think “literally” is an abracadabra word that makes anything true simply by saying it.
But, for the third time now, Biden has proved more useful, realistic and constructive in a budget crisis than his boss – a president who used to brag about his ability to work with people who disagree with him. In 2010 Biden and McConnell worked out a deal on the extension of the Bush tax cuts and, again, in the 2011 debt ceiling fight. In the latter, as Bob Woodward’s book makes clear, the president seemed ill-equipped to negotiate a deal.
Lately, President Obama has been floating the idea that the reason he can’t work with Republicans is that they have an irrational aversion to working with him. It’s a pretty convenient excuse when you think about it. It automatically means any failure is someone else’s fault. But it fails to account for the possibility that maybe there’s a reason Obama is so bad at closing the deal.
For instance, yesterday, when Biden and McConnell were grinding out the final details of a budget deal, President Obama had nothing better to do than hold something like a campaign event in front of a cheering audience of supporters. The president mocked Congress during the most delicate moments of his own administration’s negotiations with Congress. Moreover, he gloated that if Republicans accepted this deal it would amount to a surrender on taxes. And while that’s a defensible position on the merits, it made things politically harder for Republicans to agree to the deal. He also decided to announce before the deal was signed that any future deficit reductions would require yet more tax hikes. Senate Republicans didn’t take the bait, but it was clear that Obama was baiting them.
Indeed, at times it seemed like the stunt was designed to sabotage a deal he allegedly wanted. At other moments it just seemed like Obama needed to preen in front of the cameras, as if he were jealous of all the attention Congress was getting. Either way, it was an amusing spectacle given the desperate and ridiculous movie-buzz conversation inside the beltway aimed at likening Obama to Abraham Lincoln. Just the day before, Meet the Press host David Gregory hopefully asked Obama whether this was his “Lincoln moment.”.
Obama has proved himself to be many things, but “Lincolnesque” isn’t one of them.
Jonah Goldberg is editor at large of National Review Onlineand a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He is also a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors.
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