In the wrangle over America's Fiscal Cliff, Barack Obama holds all the cards

There is no incentive for the Democrats to be conciliatory on the budget negotiations; nor, after the last few years of partisan bad feeling, will there be much inclination among them to do so.

As of now, it looks like the US will go off the so-called “fiscal cliff” tonight at midnight. Several days of extraordinary manoeuvring on and around Capitol Hill in Washington have so far resulted in no deal, and with one day left to galvanise America's behemoth political machinery the chances of one looks slimmer and slimmer.

This means that previously agreed measures (under a deal resolved with a kick-the-can-down-the-road Budgetary Control Act in 2011) will slot into place at midnight, removing a whole raft of tax breaks as well and making sadistically deep cuts to federal spending.

At a glance, it is hard to see why the Republicans are trying to make a deal at all. After all, weren't vicious spending cuts exactly what Romney and Ryan spent an election campaign demanding?

Part of the reason is, however, that the Republicans are afraid of public backlash. A recent Reuters/Ipsos poll found that almost twice as many people blamed the Congressional Republicans for the fiscal cliff than the President; a PEW/Washington Post poll from earlier this month said the same. If the country goes off the cliff, the mid-term elections are going to be very hard on the GOP.

Looked at in detail, going off the cliff looks very unpleasant indeed. Sure, it will cut 607 billion dollars from the national deficit – according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office – but its effects on people directly are brutal. Tax breaks for parents will be halved and the Earned Income Tax Credit will go, affecting low and middle-income workers. A 2% payroll tax break for workers will vanish. Capital gains tax will increase, as well as the tax paid on dividends.

Dramatically, more than 40% of the five million people who have been unemployed for longer than six months will lose their unemployment benefits. There will also be cuts to tax credits for families paying college tuition. High-earning Americans won't escape bracing tax hikes either, especially those who earn more than a million dollars a year.

On top of that, all federal services, from roads to schools to homeland security – with a few exceptions including Medicaid and veterans benefits – face cuts, and perhaps redundancies. The defence budget in particular will be hit very hard, and of course that will have a knock-on effect on the vast number of tertiary industries employed by the Pentagon. All of this, experts agree, will hit the stock market hard, perhaps plunging the country back into recession.

Congress, like schoolchildren, have put off doing their homework until the very last minute, and Senators have been told not to make new years' eve plans. This is going right down to the wire: if a deal is going to be reached, it has to happen today.

It is very possible – almost probable – that America will go over the cliff; but – whisper it – it might not actually be so bad. Many of the harsher of these measures can and almost certainly will be reversed straight out of the gate; and the cuts in federal spending are due to be staggered over the course of the next decade. Obama has already stated that if the country goes off the cliff, then the Senate – controlled by Democrats – would act to pass emergency measures to prevent the loss of unemployment benefits and tax increases on lower-income families. In doing so, he would look like the hero. Certainly, there is no incentive for the Democrats to be conciliatory; nor, after the last few years of partisan bad feeling, will there be much inclination among them to do so.

Politically, Obama is holding most of the cards. The situation is lose-lose for the Republican party. If the country goes off the cliff, the House's Republican Speaker John Boehner and his party will probably be percieved as responsible for it – and are going to be forced into helping the Democrats clean up some of the mess. If it doesn't happen, the President is likely to get the credit. Boehner tried to re-cast this narrative with him as the problem solver with his alternative, the so-called “plan B” - but it was a flop, ridiculed by the Democrats and the media.

Now, he and his Congressional colleagues are scrabbling for anything they can to make the deal palatable to Republicans but still acceptable to the Democrats. They aren't being handed many scraps.

Barack Obama returns to Washington. Photo: Getty

Nicky Woolf is a writer for the Guardian based in the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

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Euston has to be the most horrible station in London, especially before ten in the morning

So off I go to Birmingham, the city where J G Ballard meets Captain Kirk.

A friend posts an ad for the John Lewis Soft Touch Washable Mattress Topper on a social medium. She doesn’t usually post adverts. “This actually will change your life,” she writes, “in the sense that you will not get out of bed and your muscles will atrophy and you will be penniless.”

I am tempted, I must say. Lately I have simply not been getting out of bed. The trick is to wake up at, say, eight in the morning, and then utilise that early-morning grogginess to go back to sleep. That way you wake up again around noon feeling deranged from the extra-weird dreams you’ve been having. The one where I stole my ex-girlfriend Debbie Milton from Prince Charles, whom she had unwisely married, and escaped with her in a white Rolls-Royce while an enraged Greg Chappell chased after us was quite something. (All details true, promise.)

But Saturday comes and I have to get out of bed because I am off to Birmingham. Why Birmingham? Because I’m being paid to. I am also chairing a talk between Diego Marani, whose most excellent novel New Finnish Grammar I am proud of having introduced to a wider audience than it might have received, and Frank Witzel, a German author of whom I know nothing, but the title of whose prize-winning (untranslated) novel, The Invention of the Red Army Faction By a Manic Depressive Teenager in the Summer of 1969, is suggestive of greatness to follow.

My train is at quarter to ten in the morning. That is horribly early, and it’s from Euston. Euston has to be the most horrible station in London. Crammed with fast-food outlets and shops selling tat, it is a wholly commercialised space, beneath which the trains hulk in confinement on their platforms like trapped beasts. They are also mostly Virgin trains, and bitter experience has taught me that these are unreliable and that one should never, under any circumstances, use their toilets. It’s best to Go before or, at a pinch, to soil oneself. After all, using one more or less amounts to the same thing.

I don’t have much experience of Birmingham, bitter or otherwise. I once gave a talk at Birmingham City University and was distracted by the Ballardian architecture of the place and by an audience member’s beauty, so much so, in the latter case, that I could not speak for a couple of minutes. But my attention is drawn to the fact that the Star Trek convention is taking place at the National Exhibition Centre in the city at the same time, and I think that as my event ends at around three I’ll skip over to the convention and, for a mere £15, have myself photographed on the set of the original Enterprise, sitting in the Captain’s chair.

I would have done anything for Captain James T Kirk when I was a child, and to this day you can catch me, from time to time, punching light switches with the fleshy part of my fist, the way he answers the internal comm-system in the TV series.

But it turns out, I learn from a friend who has had the same idea but actually committed himself to it, that there is a huge entry fee and the queues for the Captain’s chair are “apocalyptic”. So I decide not to go, and ask the hotel staff instead where the nearest decent old man pub is. They steer me in the direction of the Shakespeare round the corner.

This splendid pub huddles amid another Ballardian cityscape of car parks and stunted skyscrapers. The barman is nice, but does not know how to pronounce “Laphroaig”. “I wouldn’t even try,” he says. I teach him. It occurs to me that the whisky in the bottle is probably older than most of the buildings around it.

Why do we do this to cities? The view from my hotel is of a vast building site, behind which the few survivors of Birmingham’s Victorian heritage cluster like exhibits in a freak show: “See the Amazing Buildings Built More Than Twenty Years Ago!!” Still, at least Birmingham Library is, as modern buildings go, rather cool: and then I realise this is because the outside is modelled on the Sam Browne belt worn by Lieutenant Worf in Star Trek: the Next Generation.

I sigh at my nerdiness and take my place on stage. The chair, I decide, is suitably captainesque, and in front of us lies the flag, blue with yellow stars, of another federation, different from the one Gene Roddenberry dreamt of. I remember being excited, as a child, about the future, thinking of the progress we would make as it happened. The desire to go home, and dream, returns.

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood