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posted: 9/17/2013 5:00 AM

The politics of paralysis

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Recently overheard from a senior House Republican, commenting on prospects for a budget agreement: "At this point we're hoping Vladimir Putin comes up with a plan."

It is a summary of the state of Barack Obama's second term.

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The president's near humiliation on a Syrian use-of-force resolution indicted a dangerously shallow reservoir of trust and good will on Capitol Hill. Democrats were amazed that Obama had forced a major political battle with no plan for winning it. The White House operation seemed badly off its game. Congressional relationships that had gone untended for years could not be suddenly strengthened in a final push. In Obama's fifth year in office, the legislative base of his party seemed prepared to participate (along with Republicans) in the devastation of his presidency.

Putin threw Obama a lifeline, which has come with Russian strings attached. But it is the domestic implications that concern us here. The president enters a season of congressional confrontation fresh from an ill-conceived legislative effort that left even his supporters in disbelief.

The remainder of legislative time and attention that hasn't been spent on Syria this year will now be consumed by the budget and debt-ceiling debates -- in which the best possible outcome is the avoidance of self-inflicted wounds. Republican leaders seem prepared to combine the continuing resolution and debt-ceiling increase, extend both for a year with the budget at level spending, and impose a one-year delay in implementing Obamacare. They won't get the last part -- Obama would veto anything including it -- but the Republican base insists.

The Obama administration, in return, offers ... nothing. It is continuing the practice of starting a negotiation process by refusing to negotiate.

Coming to an eventual compromise between one side that demands the moon and the other side that demands and offers nothing at all won't be easy. The protection of Obamacare is the one "red line" the administration holds absolutely sacred. But conservatives sense opportunity in a weakened president and a deeply unpopular law. And Speaker John Boehner's room to maneuver is extremely limited by a small faction of his party that is just big enough to paralyze him. It is a recipe for confidence-shaking, market-spooking, down-to-the-wire confrontation.

In the shadow of this conflict, little else will grow. According to Yuval Levin of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, "only things that have to pass -- or else the government shuts down or the economy crashes -- are going to pass this year."

Immigration reform is a likely casualty. Technically the bill does not die until the end of 2014 and could be taken up at any point during the current Congress. But the chance to conduct a debate this fall was probably ended by Syria.

And what of the president's other second-term priorities? Climate-change legislation? Tighter federal gun control laws? Increasing the federal minimum wage to $9 an hour? Read back over the 2012 State of the Union address. It is the compelling description of an agenda now in ruins. The most notable policy developments of the last few months have been the start of the budget sequester and the delay of Obamacare's business mandate. Economic growth remains so anemic that it is unable to lift the percentage of Americans going back to work.

Obama can blame Republicans who want to "accelerate" income inequality. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid can warn that "the anarchists are winning." But month after month of executive enervation begins to strain public patience and confidence. According to a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, "Republicans are now rated higher than Democrats on handling the economy and foreign policy, and the GOP's lead has strengthened on several other issues, including dealing with the federal deficit and ensuring a strong national defense."

This is good news for Republicans in the 2014 midterms -- unless overconfidence leads them to actually shut down the government and offer the president another lifeline.

But there is little upside for the country in the meantime. If Republicans were in a position to capitalize on Obama's weakness, it might lead to serious, long-term budget reform. If Obama were strong enough to capitalize on Republican weaknesses, it might lead to additional short-term stimulus and investments in human capital. As it stands, they are paralyzed at the same time -- and so is the nation.

Michael Gerson's email address is michaelgerson@washpost.com.

2013, Washington Post Writers Group

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