WASHINGTON — To look at the presidential ballot is to marvel at how far the country seems to have come in recent decades: an incumbent African-American is seeking reelection against a Mormon. It seems the definition of a nation casting aside historic divisions.
Then there is the flip side. Divisions still define us, and the 2012 campaign seems, if anything, to have deepened them.
No matter whether President Obama or Mitt Romney claims victory on Tuesday, the winner will govern a nation that scholars say is remarkably split on political, economic, generational, racial, and social grounds. The next president also is likely to face a divided Congress, which in the last year seemed to prefer gridlock no matter the stakes.
Once the ballots are counted and the name of the next president is no longer a mystery, the deeper questions are bound to remain: Why is the country so polarized after decades of social progress? And, if the election is as close as projected, how can the man who occupies the White House for the next four years bridge the partisan crevasse and get critical public business done?.
“In the eyes of the world, we are facing a governance crisis,” said William Galston, a former adviser to President Bill Clinton who has spent the last seven years studying the nation’s polarization. “This is a game for very high stakes. The future of the country is on the table.”
Both Obama and Romney, perhaps reflecting awareness of the hard path ahead for Tuesday’s victor, have amended their tone recently, suggesting they are prepared to pursue a more conciliatory path if elected.
After running as “severely conservative’’ during the primary, Romney in the closing days of the general election campaign has pledged to work in bipartisan fashion in Washington and cut deals with Democrats on big issues. He cites his work in the Massachusetts State House, where he dealt with a Democratic Legislature.
“That kind of bipartisanship finally has to be brought to Washington, and I will,” Romney said Saturday at a campaign stop in New Hampshire.
And Obama recently predicted that the threat of automatic spending cuts set to take effect at the end of the year will spur greater cooperation and a deal on big fiscal questions next year.
“We’re going to be in a position where I believe in the first six months we are going to solve that big piece of business,’’ Obama told the Des Moines Register late last month.
Looming ‘fiscal cliff’
But a look ahead at the choices facing the next president suggests daunting prospects.
The automatic spending cuts are part of a looming “fiscal cliff” that includes the expiration of Bush-era tax cuts and other tax breaks for individuals and businesses. If the lame-duck Congress votes after the election to postpone decisions on the expirations, those painful arguments about taxes and spending will remain squarely on the agenda in 2013.
Then comes the delivery of the president’s budget, which is supposed to include a plan to put the debt-ridden nation on the path to a balanced budget. Then comes the need to deal with revamping Social Security, Medicare, and other entitlement programs, all while sustaining or — if Romney is elected and does what he has pledged — dramatically increasing the Pentagon budget.
Hanging over all those deliberations will be another proposal to raise the debt ceiling, the same debate that brought the government to the brink of shutdown in the summer of 2011 and triggered a national credit downgrade.
Neither candidate is expected to assume office with an overwhelming mandate such as Obama received four years ago, when he won the White House with a huge electoral victory. Still, there are a few possibilities for an end to partisan gridlock.
If Obama is reelected, the Republicans would no longer be crusading for his ouster and may feel greater pressure — and latitude — to compromise on long-term fiscal plans. The White House winner also could benefit if the economy improves more rapidly than expected in 2013. Better economic times could produce greater party cooperation.
If Romney captures the White House, he may live up to his promise to reach across the aisle in bipartisan fashion to solve fiscal problems. But he may find Democrats, bitter after the GOP adamancy of the Obama years, to be unhelpful partners when it comes to Republican goals like cutting taxes for the rich, reducing safety-net programs, and dramatically increasing military spending.
In all likelihood, remembering how Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said his goal was to make Obama a one-term president, Democrats may use their power on Capitol Hill to block key Republican initiatives, particularly if the GOP refuses to compromise on tax increases for the wealthy. Romney also has campaigned on a promise to repeal Obama’s signature health care overhaul, a move Democrats strongly oppose and which doubtless would trigger a major partisan collision.Continued...