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Debt Ceiling Fight Is So Yesterday’s News

Well, that was fast. Just days after Congress raised the debt ceiling and finalized a deficit reduction deal, reality slapped the nation in the face in the form of a 500-point drop in the Dow Jones industrial average.

Thank you. We needed that.

The economic news isnít good. Europeís debt problems have given Wall Street the jitters, and first-quarter 2011 gross domestic product was revised down from 1.9 percent to 0.4 percent. (If you are impressed with Julyís increase of 117,000 nonfarm jobs, you are missing the big picture.)

No wonder financial analysts are sounding increasingly pessimistic about the American economy. Slowing growth means unemployment will remain high, and a double-dip recession now looks possible. 

Oh, and did I mention that the public seems unenthusiastic about the debt ceiling deal, according to polling conducted shortly after the compromise passed Congress and was signed by President Barack Obama?

While itís unlikely that most Americans fully understand the compromise that raised the debt ceiling, itís clear they found the legislative process messy and unseemly. And with even many of the supporters of the compromise complaining about the deal, it probably isnít surprising that so many Americans are dissatisfied with it.

The mediaís obsession with the debt ceiling negotiations and deadline was understandable and even reasonable. A default would have made last weekís New York Stock Exchange sell-off look like childís play, and forcing the Treasury Department to decide which obligations to pay and which to let slide would have created chaos.

The raising of the debt ceiling was, and deserved to be, a huge news story. But donít kid yourself into believing that last weekís compromise actually accomplished much.

It didnít resolve the nationís long-term budget problems, and it didnít take spending or debt off the political table for 2012. Even more importantly ó because the nationís fundamental, long-term financial challenges remain ó it really didnít ďresolveĒ anything other than a single potentially disastrous stalemate over raising the debt ceiling.

The country is still saddled with trillions of dollars in debt. Congress is relying on a ďsuper committeeĒ empowered to make recommendations about other spending cuts. Appropriations bills still need to be passed this year and again next. And a sharp decline in the unemployment rate looks unlikely during the next year.

In short, the U.S. economy is likely to remain very weak for months, probably through the presidential election, and many messy legislative fights remain ahead.

All of this is bad news for incumbent officeholders, who will have to explain to constituents why the future looks so dark and why they havenít done anything to improve the direction of the country.

The biggest incumbent of all, of course, is Obama, who was considered a winner from the Congressional compromise to raise the debt ceiling but who looks very much like a loser just days after Congress adjourned for a month.

The presidentís poll numbers remain weak, with his job approval upside-down (a higher disapproval rating than his approval rating) in polls conducted recently.

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