The U.S. credit downgrade drama unfolding would be captivating, if it weren't so painfully true. And were it not so damaging from domestic markets to abroad.

But the drama is real, and it has placed America at an unprecedented crossroads with the next turn yet to be plotted.

How and where the U.S. goes from here is what matters most at this juncture.

For starters, the credit rating downgrade by Standard and Poor's, setting off cascading declines in markets worldwide, wouldn't be that big a deal -- if it weren't such a big deal. Credible sources suggest S&P's methodology in arriving at the downgrade was wrong.

Most likely those sources are right. But S&P's overriding reasoning -- that the political environment in Washington has become unreliable -- was dead on.

Self-serving politicians have finally stung us in a very bad way. S&P's flawed calculations aside, this disaster could have been avoided if Washington deal-brokering machinery still functioned effectively.

In a dramatic crisis like the one now unfolding, with downgrades following in quick succession for Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and other agencies reliant upon government's ability to pay its bills, America's president should be the one to step forward with calm reassurance.

But as President Obama prepares to deliver a statement, one must wonder how much weight he can pull.

He didn't have the clout in debt talks to get a deal done that would have kept America out of this mess. And he's got a slow-growth, job-poor economy with a federal budget deficit of $14.5 trillion as a backdrop to it all.

Nobody needs to tell Obama, "It's the economy stupid." He's smart enough to understand that.

But whether or not he can now be the calming voice of reason to ride out the storm and then right the political ship in Washington, by getting the budget cuts needed to stave off downgrades from other ratings agencies, remains the biggest question.

Political barriers and self-serving foolishness keeping Washington from properly serving the people created this predicament. But whether or not it ends with a proper closing chapter we can live with will be determined by the strength, or lack thereof, of the story's leading character -- U.S. President Barack Obama.