By Eugene Robinson
WASHINGTON — The standoff over the package of budget cuts known as “the sequester” is the dumbest, most self-defeating fight between President Obama and Republicans in Congress since … let’s see, since the last dumb, self-defeating fight less than two months ago.
Obama is winning this showdown, but only in a relative sense. The truth is that everybody loses — Republicans a little more, Democrats a little less. And the American people, who have a right to expect adult behavior from their elected officials, will inevitably be the biggest losers of all.
It’s hard to believe, but this is the way the richest and most powerful nation on earth runs its affairs these days, lurching from artificial crisis to artificial crisis amid threats of self-inflicted harm. The enemy, truly, is us.
On Jan. 1, you will recall, the nation was about to leap from a fiscal precipice of dizzying height. Taxes were going to soar and federal spending was going to plunge; the impact, surely, would have been to send the economy back into recession. Disaster was averted only by a last-second deal that guaranteed two brief months of fiscal sanity.
Now we face $85 billion in across-the-board sequester budget cuts, scheduled for March 1, that both Obama and the GOP leadership say would be disastrous. I’m guessing that two questions occur to you: Why, then, did the president and the Congress agree to impose these cuts in the first place, if they’re such a terrible idea? And why don’t they just call them off? Sorry, but there are no answers that make sense.
Even more absurd is the fact that there are unnecessary crises yet to come. In another month, the federal government faces a shutdown unless Congress keeps it running by passing a continuing resolution. And not far down the road, there will be another fight over preventing default by raising the debt ceiling.
Obama is likely to continue winning “victories” that only King Pyrrhus could love. The president is aided by the fact that public opinion is with him on two key points: Elected officials were not sent to Washington to do gratuitous harm; and the nation’s fiscal woes should be addressed with a combination of spending cuts and revenue increases.
A Bloomberg poll released Wednesday showed Obama’s approval rating at 55 percent, a three-year high for that survey. A Pew Research Center poll pegged the president’s approval a bit lower, at 51 percent, but still double that of the Republican leadership in Congress, at 25 percent.
The GOP tactic of trying to blame the looming budget cuts on Obama — House Speaker John Boehner and others have taken to calling them “Obama’s sequester” — confronts one insurmountable obstacle: Congress voted to approve the cuts.
Obama is also in the position of denouncing cuts that he promoted and signed into law. But the public gives him credit for being more reasonable in these frequent budget battles, and the Pew poll found that if the sequester actually takes place, 49 percent of those surveyed would blame Republicans in Congress while only 31 percent would blame Obama.
Which should be cold comfort. Winning these skirmishes accomplishes almost nothing except avoiding a series of catastrophes that never should have loomed in the first place. At a time when history calls on our leaders to think big, they are mired in the most elementary bookkeeping tasks and wrestling for political advantage while holding the economy hostage.
Something’s got to give. It’s hard enough to lead the nation from the White House; it’s impossible to do so from the speaker’s chair. The American people know this. At some point, House Republicans must figure it out.
The GOP put its agenda of deep tax and spending cuts up for a vote in November, and the people rejected it. I’m sure that Republicans still believe their ideas are the right path to growth and prosperity. But they won’t really get the chance to put those ideas into action until they win the presidency — which becomes less likely if they continue to destroy the party’s brand.
It’s time to stop the madness. For their own sake — and the country’s sake — I hope Republicans learn what the nation already knows: In our system of government, we have just one president at a time.
Eugene Robinson is a Washington Post columnist. His email address is email@example.com.