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Obama can't kick his legacy down the road

By Gloria Borger, CNN Chief Political Analyst
February 20, 2013 -- Updated 1530 GMT (2330 HKT)
President Obama has a small window of opportunity to get Congress to act on his priorities, Gloria Borger says.
President Obama has a small window of opportunity to get Congress to act on his priorities, Gloria Borger says.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Gloria Borger: Prospect of deep budget cuts was designed to compel compromise
  • She says the "unthinkable" cuts now have many supporters
  • The likelihood that cuts may happen shows new level of D.C. dysfunction, she says
  • Borger: President may want a 2014 House victory, but action needed now

(CNN) -- So let's try to recount why we are where we are. In August 2011, Washington was trying to figure out how to raise the debt ceiling -- so the US might continue to pay its bills -- when a stunt was hatched: Kick the can down the road.

And not only kick it down the road, but do it in a way that would eventually force Washington to do its job: Invent a punishment.

Gloria Borger
Gloria Borger

If the politicians failed to come up with some kind of budget deal, the blunt instrument of across-the-board cuts in every area would await.

Unthinkable! Untenable!

Until now.

In fact, something designed to be worse than any conceivable agreement is now completely acceptable to many.

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And not only are these forced budget cuts considered acceptable, they're even applauded. Some Republicans figure they'll never find a way to get 5% across-the-board domestic spending cuts like this again, so go for it. And some liberal Democrats likewise say 8% cuts in military spending are better than anything we might get on our own, so go for it.

Opinion: Forced budget cuts a disaster for military

The result: A draconian plan designed to force the two sides to get together has now turned out to be too weak to do that.

And what does that tell us? More about the collapse of the political process than it does about the merits of any budget cuts. Official Washington has completely abdicated responsibility, taking its dysfunction to a new level -- which is really saying something.

We've learned since the election that the second-term president is feeling chipper. With re-election came the power to force Republicans to raise taxes on the wealthy in the fiscal cliff negotiations, and good for him. Americans voted, and said that's what they wanted, and so it happened. Even the most sullen Republicans knew that tax fight had been lost.

Points on the board for the White House.

Obama: People will lose jobs over cuts
Explaining forced budget cuts

Now the evil "sequester" -- the forced budget cuts -- looms. And the president proposes what he calls a "balanced" approach: closing tax loopholes on the rich and budget cuts. It's something he knows Republicans will never go for. They raised taxes six weeks ago, and they're not going to do it again now. They already gave at the office. And Republicans also say, with some merit, that taxes were never meant to be a part of the discussion of across-the-board cuts. It's about spending.

Politics: Obama more emotional on spending cuts

Here's the problem: The election is over. Obama won, and he doesn't really have to keep telling us -- or showing us, via staged campaign-style events like the one Tuesday in which he used police officers as props while he opposed the forced spending cuts.

What we're waiting for is the plan to translate victory into effective governance.

Sure, there's no doubt the president has the upper hand. He's right to believe that GOP calls for austerity do not constitute a cohesive party platform. He knows that the GOP has no singular, effective leader, and that its message is unformed. And he's probably hoping that the next two years can be used effectively to further undermine the GOP and win back a Democratic majority in the House.

Slight problem: There's plenty of real work to be done, on the budget, on tax reform, on immigration, climate change and guns. A second-term president has a small window of opportunity. And a presidential legacy is not something that can be kicked down the road.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Gloria Borger.

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