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.
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 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. 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 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.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 due to the contrast between the way Obamacare was sold and the way it has been implemented. 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.
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.
America is a nation with serious public challenges — and a political class exhausted by minimal exertions.
Michael Gerson’s column is distributed by Washington Post Writers Group.