US debt: Should Obama believe Congress can compromise?

House Speaker John Boehner and US President Barack Obama Image copyright Reuters
Image caption The slave and free states compromised to form the US in the 18th Century. Can these men?

This is how hard it is: Republican leaders cannot be sure of getting enough Republicans to vote for their own plan to cut the debt and raise borrowing.

As a crisis looms the party, which controls the House of Representatives, seems almost in a state of civil war: House Speaker John Boehner tells his troops to get their "ass into line"; Republican House staffers call in the conservative bloggers to resist the deal.

I repeat, it's the Republicans' own plan they are fighting over. Theirs alone.

Imagine now what it would be like if Mr Boehner was trying to sell his own party a compromise he had made with the president, who is so detested by the Tea Party.

Systemic gridlock

This crisis has deep roots in a very American paradox.

It is caused by a political system pessimistically designed to curtail political action, one that depends of the triumph of an over-enthusiastically optimistic reading of human nature.

While the rest of the world scratches its head in puzzlement at how America can be so dysfunctional, President Barack Obama exalts the odd system that has landed the country in this mess and has kept it mired in so many other messes in the past.

On one level the impasse has been reached because of the election last year of reinvigorated, radical conservatives - the Tea Party Republicans - and the ideological gulf between them and the president elected only two years earlier.

It is a natural political expression of America's great and growing ideological divide. But that is not quite it. It is the system that turns this into gridlock.

America's system is not of course unique. But few nations have a president so apparently powerful, yet so easily hamstrung by a legislature with no executive responsibility.

When the president and the parliament are from different parties in France it is known as "cohabitation". They at least make an effort to live together. Here in the US, it is a recipe for domestic violence.

But the president, in his Monday night speech, suggested the system could be overcome by a burst of American will power: "America, after all, has always been a grand experiment in compromise.

"As a democracy made up of every race and religion, where every belief and point of view is welcomed, we have put to the test time and again the proposition at the heart of our founding: that out of many, we are one," he declared.

History calling

Many Americans seem to feel their political system was ordained by higher powers, but it was in fact rather painstakingly designed by men.

Men, moreover, who needed a system of government so doomed to inaction that it couldn't easily do anything to offend the slave states. It is an odd line for this president to take, as this article in the Wall Street Journal points out, quoting an earlier piece written when Mr Obama last used the line.

But the president didn't criticise the way the US government works, although earlier in the day he did allow himself to say he wished he could act alone. But he can't, so he is left with exhortation.

"Let's seize this moment to show why the United States of America is still the greatest nation on Earth," he said, "not just because we can still keep our word and meet our obligations, but because we can still come together as one nation."

The trouble is that all the great, historic compromises he is talking about failed at the first hurdle. And the second and third. They took time. Years. Decades.

This deadline is just days away.