Obama's supporters need to relight the fire if they want to avoid a fate much worse than spending cuts.

So it's come to this. America, the land of laissez-faire capitalism, the bastion of thrift and self-reliance, the spiritual home of the Protestant work ethic, being lectured on fiscal responsibility by the Chinese Communist Party and the former KGB apparatchik who seems to run Russia.

As the debt drama went down to the wire, Vladimir Putin took time out from crushing frying pans with his bare hands to describe America as "a parasite on the world economy", and China's state news agency Xinhua demanded that Washington defuse its "debt bomb".

Nor were they impressed by the way politicians went about ensuring that the US didn't default, complaining of "madcap brinkmanship" and "dangerous irresponsibility".

To which the appropriate response is, well, it was democracy at work, not that you'd know much about that.

Advertisement

For all the hand-wringing over the dysfunctional US system, the politicians got there in the end. Okay, they left it to the last minute, but deadlines tend to have that effect. And for all the talk of Tea Party Republicans holding the US economy hostage, America got what it voted for in last year's mid-term elections.

Last November, the Republicans made the biggest mid-term gain in the House of Representatives since 1938 and captured more seats in state legislative races than the Democrats did in the immediate aftermath of the Watergate scandal.

Regardless of what one might think of the Tea Party - and it's hard to fathom why, for instance, it believes so passionately that people who are mind-bogglingly rich should be taxed less rather than more - its members didn't like what was happening to their country and did something about it.

They participated in the democratic process. They organised, agitated, lobbied, voted and dispatched their emissaries to Washington.

There's a tradition of idealists and firebrands going to parliament vowing to shake things up and not be swayed from their principles - only to be seduced by its clubby ways and the "you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours" culture.

The Tea Partiers haven't just stood firm, they've sucked the Republican leadership into their orbit and, for the time being at least, are setting the agenda.

So what's changed in the less than three years since Barack Obama trounced John McCain or, for that matter, since March last year when he signed health care reform into law?

Coming on top of the bail-outs and stimulus packages after the 2008 financial crisis, health care reform persuaded many conservatives and independents that government spending was out of control.

Advertisement

Because the economy hasn't bounced back, the stimulus came to be seen as a definitive example of taxpayers' money being poured down the drain.

Its advocates would argue that, without the stimulus, things would have been far worse, but disaster averted is a hard sell. It's like expecting a teenager to be grateful to his parents for not letting him go to a party at which he might've been beaten up.

In hindsight, it's hard to escape the conclusion that liberals thought it would be plain sailing once their man was in the White House. That was never going to happen. Obama presented himself as a unifying figure, but the opposite was true. Many on the right didn't just disagree with him or dislike him, they refused to acknowledge his legitimacy.

His exoticism and the rising tide of red ink fuelled the narrative that he was leading America to socialism, and while conservatives mobilised to stop him, liberals sat on their hands or resorted to carping. It took almost a century to get health care reform enacted, but because many liberals felt it didn't go far enough, their defence of it was as insipid as the other side's assault was ferocious.

The battle lines are drawn. Most of the Republican presidential hopefuls denounced the deal to raise the debt ceiling as not cutting deep enough.

The challenge for liberals is to be as passionate in defence of their core values and pursuit of their agenda as their opponents. Getting Obama re-elected would be a good start. He may have fallen short of being the shining, transformative figure they expected, but he's their only horse in this race.

If liberals can't summon some fire in the belly, the bitter pill they had to swallow this week will taste as sweet as candy compared to what will be shoved down their throats with a Tea Party-approved president in the White House.