The U.S. fiscal cliff was dodged in pretty much the way that seemed most likely after November’s election: a bipartisan deal in which pragmatic Republicans, no longer focused on ending the presidency of Barack Obama, joined moderate Democrats to prevent economic sabotage by extremists from both ends of the political spectrum. On Wall Street, the immediate reaction was euphoria. But among mainstream economists and political commentators in Washington, it was cynicism.
While stock markets around the world approached their highest levels since the 2008 financial crisis, media headlines emphasized grim forebodings: Fresh stand-off looms after US cliff deal (Financial Times); Budget deal passes, debt ceiling looms (Wall Street Journal); Deal done but threats remain (Washington Post); Bigger showdowns loom after fiscal cliff deal (Reuters); House backs tax deal as next fight looms (Bloomberg).
Investors’ initial reactions are often misguided, especially to complex political events, but this time the markets will probably be proved right, and the pundits wrong. This week’s deal marked a genuine, and most likely sustainable, breakthrough for reasons of both politics and economics.
Politically, the bill’s decisive majorities in both houses of Congress showed that the U.S. Constitutional system is now less dysfunctional than widely believed. While ideological divisions may still be as wide as ever, November’s election transformed the political calculus for pragmatic Republicans such as John Boehner and Mitch McConnell. Instead of dedicating all their efforts to ousting Obama or wrecking his signature policies such as healthcare and financial reform, pragmatic Republicans must now consider how they might shape the president’s agenda over the next four years to protect their own vital interests and those of their constituents and financial supporters.
The most vital of these interests is to avoid another recession that would be calamitous for American businesses and workers, given the still-fragile condition of the U.S. economy and financial system.