WASHINGTON — The fight over the debt ceiling has turned into a dramatic leadership test for President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner, opponents in a divided government who've gone from negotiating in secret to facing off in public at a watershed moment for the country and their own political careers.
As the standoff enters its uncertain endgame, it's unclear which of them will come out ahead – or if the two leaders will rise or fall together with days left to strike a deal and stave off a potentially catastrophic default on U.S. financial obligations.
After Boehner succeeded in maneuvering Obama to the sidelines and grabbing control of the debate, the speaker's standing was abruptly thrown into question late Thursday when he failed to muster the necessary votes from tea party-backed conservatives to pass debt-ceiling legislation opposed by Obama and Senate Democrats. Boehner revised the bill to make it more palatable to conservatives, but the delay and disarray undercut the speaker's claim to be the responsible leader, giving Obama another opening to try to secure that mantle for himself.
Obama quickly deployed his unique bully pulpit, asking the public Friday to put pressure on lawmakers. "If you want to see a bipartisan compromise – a bill that can pass both houses of Congress and that I can sign – let your members of Congress know," Obama exhorted. Congressional phone lines were flooded.
Indeed throughout the twists and turns of the debate Obama and Democrats have appeared to come out on top politically, with polls showing that the public thinks Republicans are being less reasonable and need to compromise as the 2012 presidential election approaches.
Yet by most accounts, Boehner and his Republicans have already won on policy, forcing a national conversation about debt and pushing Obama to focus on historic spending cuts and drop demands for new taxes. "If you're spending more money than you're taking in, you need to spend less of it," Boehner said.
Now the question is how it ends.
Boehner could be forced to swallow a compromise opposed by enough tea party conservatives to pose a threat to his speakership. Meanwhile, Obama is holding out for his one remaining criterion, a compromise that ensures the debt ceiling will be raised until 2013.
A last-minute crisis-averting deal could prove a bitter victory at best.
If they don't pull it off, though, Obama could go down as the president who lost the country' triple-A credit rating, and Boehner as the House speaker who let it happen.
The consequential developments have played out around a first-term president and newly elected speaker who've forged a solid if not particularly warm working relationship, shot through with moments of deep frustration.
Personally, the two have little in common. Boehner, 61, is a laid-back, sometimes emotional small-business owner from Ohio; Obama, 49, a cerebral and aloof law professor from Chicago. Their off-the-clock socializing to date started and ended with a game of golf in June.
The two men achieved one major legislative win together when they reached a deal to stave off a government shutdown in April. They have a ways to go before they forge a relationship to rival the storied pairings of predecessors such as President Ronald Reagan and Speaker Tip O'Neill.
But aides to both men note that they trust each other enough to have begun working together on a so-called grand bargain of historic spending cuts, Medicare reform and tax increases, although aides differ about whose idea it was. Boehner's camp says the speaker pushed the president toward the big deal in a conversation during their game of golf, while White House aides say Obama already wanted to go in that direction.
Although each blamed the other when the deal subsequently went south, the fact that they couldn't pull it off had little if anything to do with their personal relationship, analysts said. Boehner was contending with a tea party-influenced caucus ready to revolt over tax increases, while Obama held out for a major package that could dramatically impact the deficit while taking the debt ceiling off the table through the 2012 presidential election.
"By the time we got to June, it could have been Jesus in the White House and Buddha leading the House of Representatives and it's not clear to me that talks would have reached a substantially different conclusion," said Bill Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
That hasn't kept the ups and downs of their relationship from being analyzed like a celebrity summer romance, a narrative Obama himself played into earlier this month after Boehner pulled out of talks with him for the second time.
Obama complained that Boehner hadn't been returning his calls and added wryly, "I've been left at the altar now a couple of times."
For his part, Boehner said that Obama had "moved the goal posts" by putting more taxes on the table, and contended that negotiating with the White House was like dealing "with Jell-O."
At times the mutual recriminations have been strikingly similar.
"The question is, What can you say yes to?" Obama asked of House Republicans.
"The president would not take yes for an answer," Boehner complained.
The conflict peaked Monday, when Obama delivered a prime-time address on the debt – and Boehner, having decided not to let Obama's appearances go unanswered, requested and got television time to follow him. That presented a spectacle usually seen only on the evening of the State of the Union address, when the president addresses the nation and a member of the opposition party rebuts him.
But as Boehner walked away from the microphones, he made a comment not meant to be overheard by reporters: "I didn't sign up for going mano a mano with the president." Aides said it was an expression of the speaker's humility and the surreal nature of the events unfolding. But a pitched rivalry with the House speaker might not be exactly what Obama signed up for, either.