President Barack Obama is set to begin his second term at a moment when the question is not what great things our nation can achieve but whether our government, in Obama's words, can "stop lurching from crisis to crisis to crisis."
The jury is out, but continued dysfunction seems the most likely scenario. Obama's news conference on Monday -- his last scheduled encounter with White House reporters before Inauguration Day -- was a tutorial in low expectations.
Obama devoted his opening remarks to the latest unnecessary crisis: the threat by Republicans in Congress to refuse to raise the federal debt ceiling. Such action, or inaction, would be "a self-inflicted wound on the economy," Obama said.
That's an understatement. Failing to raise the debt ceiling would in fact be a catastrophe, putting the faith and credit of the U.S. government in doubt and destabilizing a global financial system in which the dollar is the benchmark currency.
Congress has a long history of playing politics with the debt ceiling -- even Obama once voted against an increase when he was a senator -- but there was always the understanding that in the end, the needed increase would be approved. It was unthinkable that the country would actually default on its obligations.
But nothing is unthinkable anymore. House Republicans are threatening to force a default unless the president agrees to further spending cuts. Obama vowed Monday that Republicans "will not collect a ransom in exchange for not crashing the American economy."
Obama flatly ruled out two scenarios that have been proposed as ways for him to raise the debt limit without approval by Congress -- invoking an obscure clause in the 14th Amendment, or, more fancifully, minting a trillion-dollar platinum coin. "There are no magic tricks here," he said. "There are no loopholes. There are no easy outs."
But he did appear to leave one door slightly ajar. Raising the debt ceiling has nothing to do with future spending; it merely provides the funds for expenditures Congress has already approved. Obama noted that if Congress fails to act, it will have given him two conflicting orders: Spend a specific amount of money on specific programs, but do not obtain the funds to make this spending possible. Some scholars have suggested Obama just declare that the instruction to spend outweighs the instruction not to borrow, and then let the Supreme Court eventually sort things out.
Is your head about to explode? Mine is. We're not talking about how our leaders can best deal with some external threat. We're not talking about how they can move the nation toward some goal. We're talking about how they might, just might, be able to avoid choking the economic life out of the country.
This has been the pattern since Republicans won control of the House. Our elected representatives manufacture a crisis, then craft a "solution" that is nothing but a recipe for the next crisis.
Republican leaders have begun talking about a series of short-term increases in the debt limit, each increase approved only as agreement is reached on further spending cuts. Said an exasperated Obama: "I'm not going to have a monthly, or every-three-months, conversation about whether or not we pay our bills."
Obama can veto any short-term debt limit increase Congress sends him, but then he would have to find some way to raise the ceiling unilaterally. If he's prepared to go that far, case closed. If not, I see no evidence that appealing to the House Republicans' sense of reason will produce anything but hoarseness and frustration.
It's pretty pathetic when the most hopeful thing you can say about our government is that probably, in the end, our leaders won't do excessive damage to the country's well-being.
There's lots of important work to be done -- minimizing gun violence, charting energy policy, implementing health care reform, tackling the immigration issue, trimming Pentagon spending. Instead, congressional Republicans are focused on brinkmanship that is at best pointless, at worst destructive.
Eugene Robinson is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at email@example.com.