Someone Will Have to Step In & Lead if Obama Can't

By Jeff Birnbaum, Washington Times - February 17, 2010

Whether we realize it or not, Washington has come to a standstill and at a very dangerous time. Democrats, who have control on paper, have neither enough votes in Congress nor enough support among the American people to move a serious agenda. Yet the problems the country faces are large and growing.

In many ways, there's a vacuum at the top that no one knows how to fill.

The central dilemma is that the economy continues to wobble, and yet the government can't - or won't - do much to right it. Massive federal budget deficits - bloated by earlier reactions to financial crises - are preventing our leaders from coping with persistent unemployment and the weak economy that citizens are most worried about.

Voters, in the meantime, have lost faith in the central government's ability to do much about these things and trust neither party to devise a solution.

Where this goes from here is anyone's guess, though the opportunities are immense for political leaders who show a willingness to listen - and try something new - rather than repeat their standard party lines, which have resulted in mostly failure.

So far at least, President Obama has clung to his previous priorities - including health care reform and climate change legislation - even while paying lip service to "job creation." He and his top aides think that they can salvage a health care bill, for example, by merely showing up the Republicans in a televised debate.

That's nonsense. Finding a future path acceptable to most Americans is not a matter of writing clever new arguments or catchphrases, but a matter of hard choices that neither side so far has been willing to take.

Deficit reduction - the elimination of programs and the increasing of taxes - will have to come eventually, but no one is willing to put a serious plan on the table so long as the economy sputters.

Republicans are also missing a bet. They are dealing with the situation as if it were just another partisan sparring match and not a test of their mettle that could determine the direction of federal policy for years to come.

In some ways, it doesn't feel like a crisis brewing. Unemployment is high but is inching lower. The stock market is seesawing but overall is buoyant. Congress is finally focused on what people care about - job creation - and might actually pass a bill before the spring thaw.

But a closer examination of the fundamentals is bracing. The economy remains painfully weak, and the trajectory of the budget deficit is catastrophically steep. The tiny bandage Congress is about to apply to these woes will do little to help. Commercial real estate and the credit markets are still reeling. China, the new engine of global growth, is applying the brakes and, soon, so will the Federal Reserve.

More important, American voters do not like what they see and are poised to rebel. Polls show a significant, and in some cases growing, dissatisfaction with the party in power, with the president's job performance and with the direction of the country.

The best measure of Americans' view of Washington - their support of Congress - is at a remarkable low point. Nearly three-quarters of those polled disapprove of Congress' actions, according to the average of polls compiled by Real Clear Politics.

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