WASHINGTON: American pundits were reduced to car crash metaphors this week as the fiscal cliff loomed larger.
''Just because a drag race doesn't end with someone getting killed, it doesn't mean that drag racing is a safe thing to do,'' professor of history and public affairs, Julian Zelizer, wrote for CNN.
The Tea Party governor of Louisiana, Bobby Jindal, was even more colourful.
''The truth is Washington already drove us off the fiscal cliff while no one was looking,'' the former Congressman wrote for Politico.
''A nation that has a $US16.3 trillion ($15.5 trillion) debt, a debt that is larger than our entire economy, has already driven through the guard rail and is in free fall with the cliff somewhere in the rear view mirror.''
On Thursday President, Barack Obama did what he normally does when negotiations with House Republicans seize up; he flicked the switch back to campaign mode and addressed the public directly.
He invited cameras into the Santana family home in Fairfax, northern Virginia (roughly equivalent to a Canberra politician meeting real people in Queanbeyan) and said: ''You know, for them to be burdened unnecessarily because Democrats and Republicans aren't coming together to solve this problem gives you a sense of the costs in very personal terms.'' It was a fair point. Should the two parties not come to an agreement by the end of the month the impact on every American family could be dramatic.
The fraught negotiations were thrown into further turmoil with the surprise resignation on Thursday of the Republican senator Jim DeMint, from South Carolina, who helped ignite the Tea Party movement.
His departure from the Senate to become president of the conservative Heritage Foundation will give him a new platform to push the Republican Party to the right and campaign against any hint of tax rises.
But it may make the cliff negotiations a little easier for the House Speaker, John Boehner, and more moderate Republicans to make the kind of deal DeMint has railed against.
To understand how Congress and the White House came to toy so dangerously with the US's economic recovery you need to look back to the debt ceiling negotiations of 2011, and remember this is not an economic crisis, but a political one, entirely manufactured by the key players.
Both sides agree the deficit has to be cut. Democrats want to do it by increasing taxes on the very rich and cutting spending.
Republicans want to leave taxes low, maintain military spending and cut other government programs. During Obama's first term the deficit grew as the administration tried to drag the economy out of recession with stimulus spending. The President sought to balance the spending by clawing back the ''temporary'' tax cuts George Bush had introduced in 2001 and 2003.
But after Obama lost control of the House in 2010, he had to cut deals with Congress over any spending measures. His deal was that he could keep his stimulus money, as long as Republicans could keep the Bush tax cuts.
As a result the deficit continued to blow out and was soon reaching the legally mandated ''debt ceiling'' - if America was to avoid going into default Congress would have to approve a spending increase.
The newly installed Tea Party class of 2010 refused. Many of them would have preferred to see America fail to pay its debts rather than approve the spending. After almost reaching a ''grand bargain'' talks between Obama and Boehner collapsed and, rather than dealing with the problem, the two parties ''kicked the can down the road''.
They covered the debts but set in place the measures that make up today's fiscal cliff - spending cuts and tax hikes so appalling to both sides that it would force them to come to a deal by the end of this year.
The impact would gouge about 4 per cent out of America's GDP, enough throw it back into recession. A Bloomberg study in March showed that, without tax increases spending would have to be cut by $US4.9 trillion, or an average of 13.2 per cent a year to meet the goal of reducing the deficit to 60 per cent of GDP by 2020.
If tax increases were used in the mix the cuts would need to be only about 6.6 per cent.
After Obama's election victory, the negotiations are being held in significantly different circumstances. Should America fall off the cliff, the tax increases Obama seeks will be introduced automatically. Obama wants tax rises simply for the top 2 er cent, those who earn more than $US250,000. So far Republicans are demanding the cuts remain in place for all, a tough political position to maintain. Polls show support for tax increases on the very rich, and that Republicans will wear most of the blame if America falls off the cliff.
Optimistic observers believe a deal will be made, and significantly neither Obama nor Boehner has ruled out sacrificing some of their own parties' sacred cows to see it done.
Whatever the compromise is, we can expect to see the current political theatre go on through December. Neither side wants to appear too compliant.
with The New York Times