WASHINGTON — Suddenly everyone in Washington wants to be an adult.
President Barack Obama's repeated call for an "adult conversation" on spending is being echoed and rebutted by Republicans as the government reels toward a possible shutdown.
Obama says he wants to have an adult dialogue on the budget. Republican lawmakers contend they're the ones trying to have a grown-up talk. Both sides are pointing fingers yet both have agreed to repeated delays in completing a budget to keep the government open for the last six months of the fiscal year.
The bickering might seem, well, childish, but the stakes are high as each side tries to win public opinion and display the leadership qualities to attract voters at the ballot box through 2012 and beyond.
The rhetoric heated up this week with Republicans and Democrats jockeying furiously for advantage as the prospect of a government shutdown Friday grew more real. Each day that passes with no deal seems to bring more talk of who's an adult and who's not.
Obama on Tuesday emerged from a meeting with Democratic and Republican leaders and proposed "that we act like grownups."
That same day House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., released a budget plan for calling for dramatic cuts, and laid down a challenge to Obama: "Americans are ready for honest talk. They're ready to be spoken to like adults."
When the White House attacked Ryan's plan, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, jumped in to criticize the president.
"If he wants to have an 'adult conversation' about solving our fiscal challenges, he needs to lead instead of sitting on the sidelines," the speaker said Wednesday.
Then the Republican National Committee added its voice, accusing Obama of ducking a meeting on the budget. "Adults don't say one thing and do another," the committee said.
Later Wednesday it was Obama trying to seize back the adult mantel at a town hall meeting in Pennsylvania. Voters, he said, want politicians to "act like adults, quit playing games, realize it's not just 'my way or the highway.'"
For Obama, who first called for an adult conversation on long-term fiscal issues at a press conference in February, it's an attempt to put himself above the partisan fray, demonstrate firm leadership in a chaotic world and remind voters of his promise to change the way politics works in Washington.
For their part, Republicans are trying to set themselves up as the ones who can tackle the tough issues of leading Washington through the economic recovery and bringing down debts and deficits over the long term.
To voters, though, it might sound like the typical Washington back-and-forth, not adult behavior at all.
Yet perhaps for a politician the only thing worse than not acting like an adult, is acting like one, said Jack Pitney, a politics professor at Claremont McKenna College in Southern California
"Most people would agree that politicians should act like adults by making tough choices even when they are unpopular. So it's popular for politicians to say that they'll do the unpopular thing. But when they actually do the unpopular thing, they are...unpopular," Pitney said. "The lessons of adulthood are seldom happy ones."