"It's hard to avoid the conclusion that most of today's politicians regard the people with a mixture of fear and contempt: They can't stand the truth, and they'll punish any elected official who utters it," he continued. "When politicians come to believe this, or act as though they do, effective democratic self-government becomes impossible, and temporizing and pandering fill the vacuum the absence of serious governance creates."
Such a vacuum exists now, judging by the repeated brinksmanship over tax and spending issues that caused a downgrade in the U.S. credit rating and threatened economic recovery.
A series of showdowns has occurred since a conservative wave helped Republicans regain control of the House in the 2010 mid-term elections. Every deadline -- for funding the government, raising the nation's borrowing limit or addressing expiring taxes or tax cuts -- led to protracted wrangling and last-minute agreements.
William Gale, co-directorf of the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center and University of California-Berkeley Professor Alan Auerbach argued in a paper published Thursday that much more deficit reduction was needed than enacted in agreements so far.
"The changes needed relate much more to medium- and long-term deficits, rather than the short-term deficits, which to a considerable extent still reflect the weakness of the economy," they wrote. "Moreover, cuts in discretionary spending alone will not suffice if substantial progress is to be made; changes to entitlement spending and to tax revenues will be needed to close the gap."
One of those past agreements -- to increase the debt ceiling in 2011-- included the forced spending cuts taking effect Friday. Known in Washington jargon as sequestration, the cuts were intended to be so unpopular that both sides would be motivated to negotiate a broader deficit reduction package rather than let them get implemented.
However, the charged political environment of an election year in 2012 prevented such an agreement, leading to the mandatory cuts to defense and other discretionary spending -- but not entitlement programs -- set to begin Friday.
The next deadline is for the continuing resolution. Because that measure covers government spending for the rest of the fiscal year, it could address the forced spending cuts to resolve both problems.
However, Obama indicated Friday that the comprehensive agreement he seeks "may take a couple of weeks, it may take a couple of months, but I'm just going to keep on pushing on it."
Or as absurdist philosopher Albert Camus wrote of the endless task faced by Sisyphus: "The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man's heart."
"One must imagine Sisyphus happy," Camus concluded.