WASHINGTON — The fight over the debt ceiling has turned into a dramatic leadership test for President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner, opponents in a divided government who have gone from negotiating in secret to facing off in public at a watershed moment for the country and their own political careers.
As the standoff enters its uncertain endgame, it is unclear which of them will come out ahead — or if the two leaders will rise or fall together with days left to strike a deal and stave off a potentially catastrophic default on U.S. financial obligations.
After Boehner succeeded in maneuvering Obama to the sidelines and grabbing control of the debate, the speaker's standing was abruptly thrown into question late Thursday when he failed to muster the necessary votes from tea party-backed conservatives to pass debt-ceiling legislation opposed by Obama and Senate Democrats. Boehner revised the bill to make it more palatable to conservatives, but the delay and disarray undercut the speaker's claim to be the responsible leader, giving Obama another opening to try to secure that mantle for himself.
Obama quickly deployed his unique bully pulpit, asking the public Friday to put pressure on lawmakers. "If you want to see a bipartisan compromise — a bill that can pass both houses of Congress and that I can sign — let your members of Congress know," Obama exhorted. Congressional phone lines were flooded.
Throughout the twists and turns of the debate, Obama and Democrats have appeared to come out on top politically, with polls showing that the public thinks Republicans are being less reasonable and need to compromise as the 2012 presidential election approaches.
Yet by most accounts, Boehner and his Republicans have already won on policy, forcing a national conversation about debt and pushing Obama to focus on historic spending cuts and drop demands for new taxes. "If you're spending more money than you're taking in, you need to spend less of it," Boehner said.
Now the question is how it ends. Boehner could be forced to swallow a compromise opposed by enough tea party conservatives to pose a threat to his speakership. Meanwhile, Obama is holding out for his one remaining criterion, a compromise that ensures the debt ceiling will be raised until 2013.
A last-minute crisis-averting deal could prove a bitter victory at best. If they don't pull it off, though, Obama could go down as the president who lost the country' triple-A credit rating, and Boehner as the House speaker who let it happen.