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It is always hard distinguishing between political theatre and high drama in the U.S. capital, but there was plenty of each in evidence as an exasperated Barack Obama lashed out at John Boehner for again turning his back on talks to negotiate a major deficit-reduction package.

"I've been left at the altar now a couple of times," the U.S. President sniped late Friday at a hastily arranged appearance in the White House briefing room after getting word from the Republican House of Representatives Speaker that he was pulling out of the negotiations.

"The White House is simply not serious about ending the spending binge that is destroying jobs and endangering our children's future," Mr. Boehner said. "In the end, we couldn't connect."

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Only Mr. Obama and Mr. Boehner know whether they had been as close to a $3-trillion deficit deal as they had intimated. In duelling news conferences, Mr. Boehner accused the President of moving the goal posts in seeking bigger tax increases; Mr. Obama countered that the Speaker was unwilling to lean on his no-compromise caucus.

"Can they say 'yes' to anything?" the President quipped, adding that the offer he made was structured to be "compatible with the no-tax pledge that a whole bunch of these folks signed on to."

The "he said-he said" accounts are to be taken with more than a grain of salt. Much of the countdown to the Aug. 2 deadline by which Congress must lift the $14.3-trillion (U.S) limit on the amount the U.S. Treasury can borrow - and hence avoid a default - has been consumed by posturing by both politicians as they hone their messages for an epic battle in 2012.

The way to electoral victory usually involves establishing stark contrasts. The President (aka Captain Compromise) and the Speaker (the Hoover Dam of big-government resisters) excelled at that on Friday.

The President summoned top congressional leaders to the White House on Saturday morning and Mr. Boehner actually said 'yes.' They have little time left to avoid watching a pretend crisis turn into a real one.

It is far from clear that the "grand debt bargain" Mr. Obama claimed to seek was ever truly his aim. Showing a willingness to compromise is not the same thing as actually giving in to unprecedented cuts to social programs. But with or without a big deficit deal, Mr. Obama has made his point.

What the President is really fighting for now is a deal that spares him the unpleasant chore of having to ask Congress to raise the borrowing limit once more before the 2012 election. Republicans would love nothing more than to force him to go through this all again during high campaign season.

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The President ended his news conference with a jab at Mr. Boehner that should be taken to heart by everyone at Saturday's meeting: "At some point, if you want to be a leader, then you got to lead."

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About the Author

Columnist Konrad Yakabuski writes on politics, policy and business for The Globe and Mail’s Comment section and Report on Business. More

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