What was accomplished in Obama and Boehner speeches?

President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner gave televised addresses Monday night that seemed to emphasize how far Washington is from a debt-ceiling deal.

Jim Watson/REUTERS
President Obama speaks in a prime-time address to the nation from the East Room of the White House in Washington Monday about the debt ceiling.

For weeks now, President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner have been speaking past each other at the negotiating table – unable to find compromise on a deal to trim the deficit and raise the national debt ceiling.

Monday night, they continued that trend on national television.

In separate primetime televised speeches, Messrs. Obama and Boehner told the country what has been well known for more than a month. The president wants Republicans to pass a bill that would compel the wealthiest Americans to "share in the sacrifice" of a deal through new tax revenues. The Republicans do not.

It is, they both agree, a fundamental difference in how each views the political world. And yet on Monday night neither Obama nor Boehner offered an inkling as to how that gap is to be bridged before the federal government runs out of money to pay all its bills on Aug. 2.

If anything, their speeches gave the impression of the two entrenching more deeply.

Obama browbeat Republicans with a quote from Ronald Reagan from debt-ceiling debates past: “Would you rather reduce deficits and interest rates by raising revenue from those who are not now paying their fair share, or would you rather accept larger budget deficits, higher interest rates, and higher unemployment?"

Boehner characterized Obama as a spendthrift who only came to see the value of deficit reduction though Republican persistence.

The few olive branches that were extended were more like partisan fig leaves.

The clear goal of the pair was to appeal over the head of the other to the American people, in hopes that somehow, they might change a dynamic that appears now to be repeating itself with diminishing results. With polls suggesting, however, that the American people are disengaged, confused, or disgusted by Washington's inability to resolve the issue, it is a faint hope.

Though at this point, a faint hope is as bright as any. House Republicans and Senate Democrats on Monday introduced their competing plans to solve the debt ceiling standoff. What they most have in common is that neither is likely to pass Congress, University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato told the Monitor.

In his address, Obama was trying to throw his support behind the plan by Senate majority leader Harry Reid, which would raise the debt ceiling enough to get the country through the 2012 election. Boehner's plan would do the same job in two installments, with the second required in six months' time. Obama doesn't want to go though this process again so soon. Boehner says it is necessary to get the nation's financial house in order.

After his exasperation Friday at the collapse of talks with Boehner, Obama on Monday again assumed his typically professorial persona, at one point suggesting that Americans outside the Belway might never have heard of the "debt ceiling." So he explained it, spiced with quotes from Thomas Jefferson: "Every man cannot have his way in all things."

It was Obama's most conspicuous attempt yet to use the bully pulpit to win over voters and ramp up pressure on Republicans.

Yet the voters who are perhaps most important are those who have already spoken – those who were responsible for making Boehner Speaker of the House in the first place. The November election swept into the Congress Republicans who felt their sole job was to change the way Washington works.

By that measure, perhaps, Monday night could have been deemed a success.

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