updated 4/8/2011 7:44:25 PM ET 2011-04-08T23:44:25

President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, took their offices with the promise of reconciliation and productivity. Instead, the government of the most powerful nation on earth is about to run out of money and shut down, putting thousands out of work and shutting down everything from military pay to the National Zoo.

How did it—this incompetence—get this bad? After all, the fight over about $7 billion in differences in this year's budget is about 0.2 percent of the $3.5 trillion federal budget. It's like a family making $100,000 falling apart over $200. And then there's the fighting over intractable issues like abortion, as if either party was about to renounce long-held philosophies and faiths.

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One can't blame Obama and Boehner entirely. After all, Washington's growing partisanship has been years in the making. House districts are more partisan than ever. Few have incentive to compromise.

The shutdown of the 90s rebounded to Bill Clinton's benefit but there's no guarantee that a Democratic president will benefit this time. Boehner is not a quasi prime minister like Newt Gingrich was, recognizable to all Americans. Obama is the face of the government and now it's less about hope than stalemate. It may not be the commander-in-chief's fault, but it's surely his burden now.

Video: Budget battle continues as shutdown looms (on this page)

For his part, Boehner, who rose in the House as a deal maker, a hard-core conservative who nevertheless knew how to keep things moving, now seems increasingly strapped by the raucous tea partiers who propelled him into the speaker's chair. It's hard to see how he could do anything but play brinkmanship until the last minute.

And the last minute is almost where we are. As Obama said when he raced to the microphones after Thursday night's negotiations, the machinery of shutdown has begun. The BlackBerrys are about to be turned off. The passports won't be issued. The tax returns won't come. Those Americans who disdain government in the abstract are about to have their contempt put to the test. Of course, Congress and the president will continue to be paid.

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It could well be that a deal is achieved at the last minute or that the shutdown, should it befall the capital, lasts only a few hours or constitutes a lost weekend.

But the damage has been done to both parties and to both Obama and Boehner. Neither's ability to get things done will ever be accepted at face value again. Their capacities as leaders has been tried and found wanting. That doesn't mean that neither won't rebound in popularity. But Americans' faith in authority, in institutions, has been dealt a blow. The financial crisis was built, in part, on financial institutions that relied on overnight funding to finance their casino-like gamble on ever-rising housing prices. Now the White House and the Hill have played a similar game of chicken. But unlike Americans who save their taxes for the last minute, this time procrastination and pathology have real-life consequences for an Ohioan and a Hawaiian—and for the rest of us too.

The article, "A Blow to Boehner, Obama, and Us," first appeared in the National Journal.

Copyright 2012 by National Journal Group Inc.

Video: Chuck Todd: 'Safe to say a deal is at hand'

  1. Closed captioning of: Chuck Todd: 'Safe to say a deal is at hand'

    >> at this hour, just exactly where do thing s stand in washington. chuck todd joins me for hopefully an answer to that. what are you hearing?

    >> reporter: we're close to being able to say a deal is at hand. why, because the issue about abortion and planned parenthood and this rider that money would be denied to any health care facility that performed abortions even using private money , woo know it's illegal for federal taxpayer dollars to be used on abortions, that has been resolved. i had two aides on capitol hill say that and a democratic aide say it's close. but if it has been resolved and one may be to delay the vote on this. you take it out of this budget deal and republicans take it up as a separate stand-alone deal. that's a face saver for speaker boehner . he's able to say, look, you're going to get another shot at voting for this, but it isn't worth shutting down the government, and kate, the other problem speaker boehner was facing was a lot of senate republicans have been putting more and more pressure on boehner to drop the riders and cut a deal, so we're very close. maybe within an hour or so.

    >> that's good news, chuck todd .

Explainer: What happens during a government shutdown?

  • Image: Boehner and Cantor
    Brendan Smialowski  /  Getty Images
    House Majority Leader Eric Cantor listens while Speaker of the House John Boehner speaks to the press Tuesday about a possible government shutdown.

    The White House and Congress have until Friday to reach agreement on an elusive federal spending-cut bill — or face a partial shutdown of the government beginning the next day.

    Relatively few federal employees work on weekends, so the impact of a shutdown likely won't be felt much until Monday morning when millions of them are set to report to work.

    It's been 15 years since the last government shutdown over spending disagreements. Here are some facts about what could happen.

  • Furloughed employees

    Based on previous shutdowns, several hundred thousand federal workers could be idled as nonessential, disrupting all but vital U.S. services such as national defense, emergency medical care and air traffic control. In addition, some employees of federal contractors may also be furloughed.

    Since 1980, all federal agencies have been required to have updated plans for potential shutdowns that include who would be furloughed and who would be kept on the job.

    Essential personnel in the last shutdown — employees who remained on the job — included members of the U.S. military, federal criminal investigators, those involved in federal disaster assistance and workers vital to keeping crucial elements of the U.S. money and banking system up and running.

  • Tax time

    Unlike the last two shutdowns, both of which occurred in the 1990s, this one would take place during tax preparation and filing season. That could mean delayed tax refunds to an untold number of Americans, congressional aides say.

  • National parks and museums

    The last shutdown closed much of the federal government from December 16, 1995, to Jan. 6, 1996. National parks and museums were closed, an estimated 200,000 applications for U.S. passports went unprocessed and work on more than 3,500 bankruptcy cases was suspended.

  • NIH and toxic waste

    Also during the last shutdown, new patients were not accepted into clinical research at the National Institutes of Health, hotline calls to NIH about diseases were not answered, and toxic waste cleanup work at 609 sites stopped.

  • Veterans and the elderly

    A shutdown may be felt on a number of fronts, including delays in approving import and export licenses and new benefits for military veterans, congressional aides say. Processing new Social Security applications may also be delayed, but checks for retirees are expected to go out on time.


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