As President Barack Obama and top congressional leaders returned to Washington, they were saying all the right things, with their aides claiming to detect a new spirit of compromise in the air.
Obama devoted Wednesday to conferring with the four top congressional leaders before a return trip to Washington.
To other observers, the new spirit of compromise proved elusive, since, stripped of the conciliatory tone, the parties seemed to be right back where they were before they left Washington.
The lawmakers may have heard the voters, but the voters seemed to say different things.
House Speaker John Boehner raised Democratic hopes when he said, "Republicans are willing to accept new revenues." That seemed to suggest that he accepted Obama adviser David Axelrod's conclusion from the election that the voters favored higher taxes on those earning more than $250,000.
Boehner, more than any other lawmaker, is key to any final deal. But as he explained his supposedly new position on new revenues, more caveats emerged.
The increased revenue, he said, must come "as the byproduct of a growing economy, energized by a simpler, cleaner, fairer tax code with fewer loopholes and lower rates for all." This is never-never talk. Everybody is in favor of tax reform until the actual details emerge of how to bring it about, and then everybody and their lobbyists are opposed to some element of reform.
The few times we've had genuine tax overhaul, it has been the work of exceptional legislators in exceptional times. We could be in an exceptional time now.
Obama has a mandate, not an overwhelming one, but a mandate nonetheless and lame duck presidents traditionally have two years in which they are capable of major accomplishments.
Boehner, a skilled legislative practitioner, has been hamstrung by his rambunctious Republican caucus. However, voters trimmed some of the wilder members of that caucus and reined in others. The Tea Party is in low standing because, for the second time, it cost Republicans control of the Senate.
If there is to be compromise, it will be up to Boehner and Obama to bring it about.
Dale McFeatters is a syndicated columnist for the Scripps Howard News Service.