President Barack Obama pulls off a win but faces a polarized political environment that has continued to harden since President George W. Bush won a second term.
Pundits say voters, particularly independents, favor bi-partisan cooperation among office holders. Yet, Republicans remain in control of the House of Representatives and Democrats retained their slight grip in the Senate.
That is the balance of power that led to ideological gridlock on votes related to the stimulus bill, the debt ceiling and the president’s most recent jobs legislation.
University of Georgia political science professor Keith Poole studied congressional polarizationand found the two major parties are more divided now than at any time since Reconstruction, with few true moderates remaining in either the House or Senate.
Key votes in the next four months
The ‘fiscal cliff’
For Obama and the new Congress, this is their biggest problem to solve.
Over the next decade, $7 trillion in tax increases and spending cuts will kick in that would reduce defense and non-defense spending. The so-called ‘Bush tax cuts’ would expire for everyone and unemployment benefits that have been important for the long-term unemployed would end.
Obama has said he wants to let tax cuts expire on households earning $250,000 or more and individuals taking home $200,000 or more.
Treasury debt ceiling limit
Without striking a compromise, Obama and Congress are headed for a clash that could lead to a second credit downgrade for the nation.
The debt ceiling is the legal limit Congress sets on how much the nation can borrow. The first limit of $11.5 billion has ballooned to the current $16.3 billion cap.
Action is expected in January or February but should negotiations fail to produce a decision, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner would not be able to borrow any more money and the government would not have enough funds to pay all of the bills it already has incurred.
Obama sent a $447 million jobs bill to Congress in fall 2011 that failed to garner consensus and has not been passed. With the 2016 presidential contest destined to be a fight for an open seat, neither party will want to be blamed for failing to get Americans back to work.
Votes not likely to be called the next four months
Campaign finance reform
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., was pushing for the Democrats to pick up enough seats to win back the House and pass an amendment to the Constitution overturning the Supreme Court’s Citizen’s United vs. Federal Election Commission ruling.
The court’s decision is credited with paving the way for the federal court ruling in SpeechNow.org vs. Federal Election Commission, which allows a new kind of political action committee (PAC) known as super PACs to raise unlimited sums of money from corporations, unions, associations and individuals and then spend it for or against candidates.
According to OpenSecrets.org, as of Nov. 6, there are 1,065 Super PACs reporting $661.4 million in total receipts and $631.3 million total independent expenditures so far in the 2012 election cycle.
Obama said he would support an amendment but Democrats do not have the numbers to muster this through. Yet, the unprecedented fundraising and spending is likely to receive scrutiny.
During an off-the-record conversation with the Des Moines Register, Obama said he was confident immigration reform legislation would be passed in 2013, partly because Republicans will want to build relationships among Latino voters.
But this issue exposes a deep partisan divide as well. Republicans blocked the DREAM Act and Obama began implementing certain provisions by executive power. House Speaker John Boehner was direct earlier this year in saying that even a GOP version of the bill would fail.
Talks with Iran?
The New York Times reported that a deal had been reached for the United States and Iran to hold direct negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program on Oct. 20. On Oct. 21, The Times reported both sides’ denial. Still, the initial report said Iran had only agreed to the talks pending the election, saying that it needed to know who it was negotiating with.
Now that both sides are set, will talks again find their way onto the agenda?
The pivot toward Asia
In his first term Obama ordered the military to begin thinking more about the Pacific Rim, where China is a rising power and tensions over disputed islands have been rising. Japan and China have sent ships into the contested waters and Taiwan has also been a player. The real issue may be the natural resources beneath the waves, according to the U.S. Energy Information Agency.