“There is no reason for me, at the moment, to believe anything they tell me,” said New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie of his party’s congressional leadership at a press conference about federal disaster aid yesterday.  This remarkable public statement from a frustrated governor arises from a situation that embraces nearly every aspect of politics in this country nowadays. Maybe all politics is local, as the introductory course maintains, but I believe that a truer expression of reality is that all politics is personal.  Many manifestations of our political world are highlighted by events in Washington this week.

The strained quality of political leadership, the omnipresent political partisanship, the changing character of political loyalty and a nation apparently deeply divided on not just domestic priorities, but on core values and principles, are all on display.  The difficult questions of critical temporary help and the importance of government safety nets are set against the certain diminished long-term prospects of the nation if nothing “bends the cost curves” of federal assistance that our children and their children cannot afford to provide. Both are reasons to passionately debate the $61 billion aid package for the Hurricane Sandy-ravaged Northeast – yet on different sides of the question.

Aside from the obvious humanitarian relief, is it the federal government’s job to rebuild the beaches?  Should Minnesota taxpayers or people who live on mountainsides in New Mexico be upgrading the New York subway system?  Is that why we have a federal government?  Clearly the notion of a larger common purpose undergirds the policy, but the allocation of responsibility is the reality that is less examined.  Should comparatively wealthy people pay another 3.8% surcharge on their investments and property transfers for disaster relief as they will now under the new health care law?

The gradual erosion of the capacity for the national government to perform any other duty on our behalf except to pay interest on the national debt lays uneasily on all of these political elements, and also on basic decisions about the proper role of government and who picks up the tab. Yet the public is largely disengaged, unless something it likes is threatened.  And the public likes federal help.  Federal help on college costs. Federal help on nursing home care, retirement income security, telephone service, child care, school lunches and scientific research are all extremely popular. Federal help on wind energy production, and energy-saving anything, even if there are ample reasons for businesses to make decisions that save them money.

There is an industrial strength headache in store for a nation that cannot face the question of how to pay for the help it offers its citizens, and disaster relief is a tiny microcosm of the challenge. The fiscal cliff patch has been pretty well analyzed this week, but few Americans seem to understand that without growth in the economy, we will go down no matter what they think or do on the banks of the Potomac. Our GDP will reportedly take a 1% hit merely by the reimposition of the 6.2% payroll tax, and reaction to the new health care taxes is almost certainly more part-time work in an economy that desperately needs to be growing.

The administration’s disregard of small business needs may not be entirely its fault, since we are told that there are fewer members of the president’s cabinet with business experience than at any other time in recent history. Lip service alone from a president and Congress with well-honed rhetorical skills, belied by their regulations and heavier burdens on new and small business, will not convince us of their belief that the nation’s self-interest is inextricably tied to organic growth.

In the meantime, the terms “affordable” and “based on what they agreed to” in reports from the seat of government are sounds which produce a similar effect on me to the trailer of the new chainsaw movie.

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