En español | The nation's most pressing problems are in the hands of an unlikely pair — President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner — the nation's top Democrat and Republican, who must decide whether they will move obstinately to separate corners or waltz together in a new bipartisan duet.
The divided government that began in January with a new Republican-controlled House as a counterweight to Obama and the Democratic Senate adds a layer of complexity to such hot-button issues as raising the nation's debt ceiling to prevent a national default, reducing the deficit, boosting the economy, and health care.
Voters are focused. They want politicians to get past their partisan differences and start solving problems.
"This is a very results-oriented electorate," says David Winston, an adviser to Boehner and president of the Winston Group, a public strategy firm. "The electorate is in no mood for hearing political points. This is about results."
To get to those results, both Boehner and Obama must weigh the benefits of compromise against the costs of crossing those in their own parties who want to take a harder line on issues. Obama faces the simultaneous pressures of a reelection campaign and liberals frustrated by unmet expectations. Boehner's headache comes from a gigantic freshman class that includes many Tea Party-backed Republicans elected to fundamentally reduce the role of government.
The first showdown could come as early as next month over raising the limit on how much the country borrows. With its current budget deficit, the federal government must borrow one of every three dollars it spends just to keep operating and has already borrowed more than $14 trillion. It's never happened here before, but if the government defaults or if it cannot continue to borrow, the fallout could be devastating and could linger for years.
Boehner has called on his colleagues to be adults in dealing with the issue. But in return he wants Obama to accept more cuts to stop what he has called the "job-killing spending binge in Washington." To avert a debt crisis, Boehner will need the support of Republican lawmakers, including many who were elected after promising to slash spending to avoid raising the debt limit.
In 1995, the Republican Congress approved severe spending cuts as part of the legislation raising the debt limit, and Democratic President Bill Clinton vetoed the bill, starting a two-month standoff and an on-again, off-again government shutdown. Republicans took a battering in public opinion. Similar factors are in play today, posing a challenge for Boehner.
"How do you show the hard-liners you are OK as speaker, yet behave as a responsible legislator?" says Bruce Oppenheimer, professor of political science at Vanderbilt University. "That's where real political skills come in. The real question is, is he up to it?"
Former House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert says he is. He doubts Boehner will push the government into a shutdown. "He's been there before, and it didn't work out well," says Hastert, now a senior adviser at the law firm Dickstein Shapiro.
What about domestic spending and jobs? >>