President Obama began this year, in his State of the Union Address, calling for investment in infrastructure to keep us competitive with growing economies around the world.
Now, he's just trying to keep us out of default.
The past six months have not marked a proud direction for debate in America. However the debt ceiling issue is resolved, this trajectory suggests a bigger problem for ever properly investing in our country.
Instead of talking about investing in smart grids, high-speed rail and refurbished bridges, we are wondering what happens to a great country when its creditors shut off our credit. Instead of technology in our classrooms, we're cutting early childhood programs. Instead of talking about how our youth can out-compete youth around the world, we are a country of citizens who believe, for the first time, that their children won't have it as good as they had it.
Earlier this week, Speaker Boehner spoke of our nation's spending sapping the "drive" of the American people. There is lack of jobs while big companies sit on record cash-reserves. There is a foreclosure crisis targeting regular Americans. There is a sense of hopelessness compounded by shortages in unemployment relief, foodstamps and vocational education.
Those seem like elements that might sap our national drive, but the government is handcuffed by a small group of right-wingers who have no issue defying their party leadership. President Obama, a natural compromiser, has made clear again and again that he will disappoint his own party's liberal guard.
Boehner - afraid and powerless - can't do the same.
In this morning's address, the president reiterated the imperative to compromise and the necessity of bipartisanship. Yet the House Republicans can't even agree on their own plan, nor have they shown any willingness to consider alternatives.
As a result, as the countdown clock to default ticks down, the debate keeps drifting rightward. One side won't budge; the other side won't let this country fail. As a result, we no longer debate how to engineer a new generation of grand investment in our country; we debate how austere we need to be. We no longer talk about how to put Americans back to work; we talk about two competing proposals that focus on cuts instead of revenue.
The Democrats keep inching closer to the Republicans: Willing to talk about entitlements, putting aside new taxes, focusing on cuts. The Republicans then keep backing into deeper stances: Demanding Constitutional amendments, rejecting a crackdown on corporate give-aways, walking away from the table.
Whatever happens to raise the debt ceiling - and there will be a deal of some sort, one that shifts more burden onto working Americans and lets the richest accumulate and hoard even more resources - the problem of this dynamic will not go away. The right-wing is good at picking fights. They choose something that seems absurdly irrational - like threatening a government shutdown or toying with national default - and force the Democrats to treat the position seriously.
This will only continue. And if the Democrats think that rationally waiting for the American people to reward them for being the compromising grown-ups is a good strategy, they'll just keep losing ground.
Boehner is right that our drive is being sapped. Democrats need to recognize that the drive is out there - but it won't be reignited by talks of cuts and austerity. There is energy that can be harnessed by bold plans to end corporate welfare and plow the money into job-creation; there is a citizen army that would mobilize behind ending our occupations overseas and building infrastructure here at home.
That energy won't be tapped in the next week, sadly. And every time the Democrats give ground, it makes them less likely sparks to ignite that patriotic passion. But the debt debate won't be the end of the right-wing's war to defund our government and our country, and the sooner Democrats pick a few fights, rather than getting picked on, the sooner we all will have a chance.
Justin Krebs is a political organizer and writer based in New York City. He is the founder of Living Liberally, a nationwide network of 250 local clubs that create social events around progressive politics, and author of "538 Ways to Live, Work and Play Like a Liberal."