How the Fiscal-Cliff Deal Will Define Obama's Second Term

Constant crisis, a more aggressive president, maybe even a more accommodating Republican Party: What last week's agreement tells us about the road ahead

Getty Images

The fiscal cliff was not the end. If anything, it was the beginning of a new season of crisis on Capitol Hill. Aren't you glad?

The coming months will bring three new deadline-focused congressional crises. First, we'll hit the debt ceiling -- that could come as soon as February 15, meaning Congress, having already ruined New Year's, could also spoil Valentine's Day. Then, on March 1, the automatic spending cuts of the so-called sequester, which last week's fiscal-cliff deal postponed for two months, come due once again. And by late March, it will be time to pass the next spending bill to fund the federal government.

If it sounds like a Groundhog Day of recurring fiscal crises, it probably is. But that's just the most immediate legacy of the fiscal-cliff deal, which, by postponing the sequester and debt-ceiling issues, helped create this situation.

In ways both concrete and abstract, the cliff deal -- though technically a product of the last Congress and the first Obama administration -- is likely to set the tone for the coming years' dance between Obama and Congress. As the successor to the debt-limit talks of 2011 that did so much to redefine Obama's stance toward Capitol Hill, the fiscal-cliff deal's virtues (a bipartisan deal that got done before the "cliff" could meaningfully take effect) and shortcomings (it's an incomplete solution that left much unresolved) likely foreshadow the prospects for congressional action on a range of issues, for better and worse.

* Constant crisis. It's not just the triple whammy of looming deadlines. Never underestimate Congress's ability to solve one crisis by creating another. That's what may happen with the debt ceiling: The possibility has been raised that rather than agree to raise it for a year or two, Congress may only extend it for, say, a month at a time, creating a series of new crises as far as the eye can see. The same may be true for the government's budget. It's currently funded by a short-term continuing resolution passed in September that expires at the end of March. Congress is expecting to pass an omnibus appropriations bill at that time, but it's not clear how long the bill will last. Nor should we have too much faith that the sequester gets resolved rather than further postponed. Both Republicans and Democrats say they want spending cuts but not these spending cuts, and neither party has managed to come up with a politically palatable alternative. As a result, "what it seems will happen is a series of smaller and smaller deals," said Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress and a former Obama adviser.

* No time for anything else. Remember when Obama had big plans to tackle immigration, gun control, and other policy priorities? Forget it. If Congress and the White House are constantly haggling over short-term fixes to taxes and spending, they're not going to be able to get anything else done. Also crowding the docket: nominations for second-term Cabinet members, some of which -- particularly the naming of former Senator Chuck Hagel to head the Pentagon -- are bound to be contentious.

* The end of Obama-Boehner. The president and House speaker's bad romance has been a years-long saga. We thought it had ended in tears after the summer of 2011 with the breakdown of the debt talks. But the two, with their shared, quixotic ambition of making a "big deal," just couldn't quit each other, and they tried again for the fiscal cliff. It didn't work out -- Joe Biden and Mitch McConnell ended up saving the day instead after Boehner concluded Obama wasn't willing to make sufficient concessions, and House Republicans weren't willing to follow the speaker's lead. Now, it seems likely that the relationship is really over. "I think that the Boehner-Obama relationship is shot," said John Feehery, a GOP strategist and former staffer to Republican House Speaker Dennis Hastert. "The center of gravity for cutting deals is going to move over to the Senate. And nothing's going to be easy. Both Boehner and McConnell have already gotten a lot of grief from the right wing, which is going to make them even more cautious."

Presented by

Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

Saving the Bees

Honeybees contribute more than $15 billion to the U.S. economy. A short documentary considers how desperate beekeepers are trying to keep their hives alive.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus


How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.


Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.


The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.


Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.


Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses


Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in Politics

Just In