As public policy challenges go, this one shouldn’t have been that difficult.

All the congressional “supercommittee” had to do was slash $1.2 trillion from the federal budget. Couldn’t do it. Wouldn’t do it.

The 12-member committee threw in the towel Monday after months of discussions that apparently added up to nothing but a headlong crash into a political brick wall.

The committee needed to come up with a plan and adopt it before Thanksgiving. Never got close.

No sooner did committee members concede defeat than President Obama – whose idea of leadership was to get out of town during the crucial late stages of negotiations – took to the airwaves to play the tough guy, threatening to veto any attempt by Congress to short-circuit automatic spending cuts activated by the supercommittee’s failure to reach agreement.

Some leadership. Some president. Some committee.

In the face of a national debt now rolling inexorably toward the $16 trillion mark, a mere $1.2 trillion is chump change. How could this committee of congressional all-stars – what, John Kerry isn’t an all-star? – come up empty?

Call it the partisan divide. Call it ideological incompatibility. Call it bullheadedness.

Just don’t call it governing.

We shouldn’t be surprised. Given Washington politicians’ track record of serial intransigence, there was no reason to expect that this supergroup of 12 would miraculously come together.

We saw the near shutdown of the government. We saw the near collapse of negotiations to raise the debt ceiling. We saw the finger-pointing and name-calling and blame-placing that defined every previous encounter between Republicans and Democrats in this Congress; between Republicans and this president.

Any concern for the country, for the people of this country, has given way to the self-serving demands of politics. Our elected “representatives” – the president included – are running for re-election. The job we are paying them to do, the job of representing us, of dealing with the daunting challenges we face, is not even on their radar.

The supercommittee’s co-chairs, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, proclaimed their disappointment at the outcome of the committee’s deliberations. They issued a joint statement:

“After months of hard work and intense deliberations, we have come to the conclusion today that it will not be possible to make any bipartisan agreement available to the public before the committee’s deadline. Despite our inability to bridge the committee’s significant differences, we end this process united in our belief that the nation’s fiscal crisis must be addressed and that we cannot leave it for the next generation to solve.

“We remain hopeful that Congress can build on this committee’s work and can find a way to tackle this issue in a way that works for the American people and our economy.”

Touching, isn’t it? They remain united in their belief “that the nation’s fiscal crisis must be addressed.”

Nice to know they’re united in something. Nice to know they believe the nation’s “fiscal crisis must be addressed.”

Obama said the only way automatic spending cuts can be avoided is for Congress to do what the supercommittee didn’t: Devise a plan to meet the deficit reduction target established as part of the resolution of last summer’s debt-ceiling fiasco. The automatic cuts would devastate national defense and severely curtail a wide range of federal programs.

Fortunately, Congress has some time, since the automatic reductions won’t occur until 2013 – after the 2012 elections, amazingly and surely coincidentally.

Could all this be any more discouraging? It’s hard to imagine how.

But if the supercommittee’s co-chairs can remain hopeful, the American people can remain hopeful as well.

Perhaps amid all this failure the nation’s alleged leaders will suddenly see that the country has had it with gridlock and gamesmanship. Perhaps the president and Congress will see that their crass obsession with re-election might backfire next November – that the voters might decide to punish them for their self-indulgent partisanship.

Meanwhile, just in case, the voters should be steeling themselves to inflict the punishment. Defeat at the polls is one message every politician understands.