With unemployment at almost 10 percent, creating jobs is another priority. But if that means borrowing and spending money — the two voter mandates will be in conflict.
Social Security. Because of its size, its long-term financial challenges and a GOP plan to partially privatize it, Social Security is part of the budget debate. One plan offered by the president's commission proposed raising the retirement age to 68 by 2050 and to 69 by 2075 and gradually reducing benefits.
The probable new chairman of the House Budget Committee, Wisconsin Republican Paul Ryan, will be a leading voice for change. He favors private accounts for Social Security, which AARP opposes. According to association Executive Vice President Nancy LeaMond, "Americans, particularly the middle class, are facing declining pensions, lack of savings and rising health care costs, and these unbalanced proposals take the country in the wrong direction instead of answering their real fears."
The issue will no doubt be a central focus. "We'll be under the gun much more than we have been," said Barbara B. Kennelly, president of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare.
Health care. Republicans have targeted "Obamacare," the health care reform that will provide health insurance for more than 30 million people now uninsured by putting new requirements on businesses, insurance companies and individuals. Many of the newly elected Republicans who have vowed to repeal the law will try to curtail funds needed to implement it.
Republicans will have difficulty finding the votes to override a presidential veto. But they could try to slow down funding for health care reform or pick off small provisions, said James Thurber, director of the Center for Presidential and Congressional Studies at American University.
Boehner also dispatched a letter to newly elected Republican governors pledging to work with them to slow down implementation of the machinery necessary for the national plan.
Taxes. Bush-era tax cuts, as well as cuts enacted with the 2009 stimulus plan, expire at year's end. Obama has announced a tentative deal with Republicans in Congress to extend the Bush tax cuts at all income levels for two years. The package would also preserve benefits for the long-term unemployed and cut payroll taxes for employees for a year.
Now what? The public seems to see divided government as a good thing, said Republican pollster Bill McInturff of Public Opinion Strategies. If fellow Republicans are smart, he said, they will find a few moderate Democrats to work with so they can tell voters they are working across the aisle. And if Republicans do what they promised in the election, such as cutting spending, it could help the GOP brand in the 2012 election, McInturff added.
For their part, Democrats still have a majority in the Senate, though the November results may be intimidating for the 23 Democratic senators facing reelection in 2012. And Obama is still president — with the tools, prestige and power that entails.
"The Democrats are not going to roll over and play dead," said David Gergen, of the Center for Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School. But, added Stephen Hess, "if they're not willing to do business with each other, all of this is just a prologue to 2012. It's the degree of gridlock the American people are going to have to deal with."
Tamara Lytle is a former Washington bureau chief for the Orlando Sentinel.