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Obama at the helm of a divided nation

America is united in its frustration over the economy, over Washington, over where the country is heading.

But it is deeply split about how to fix some of the nation's biggest woes - a ballooning federal debt, near 10% unemployment and a sluggish recovery.

And, now that a divided government is certain, President Barack Obama and ascendant Republicans face only two options: compromise or stalemate.

Can this new power structure - one with different ideological philosophies to fix increasingly complex problems - actually lead a sharply polarised country that cannot agree on where it wants to go? Will the politicians even try?

If voters don't know what they want beyond something different from the status quo, how can a government deliver, much less one that's divided?

These will be the central questions of the next two years as a weakened Mr Obama, diminished Democrats and resurgent Republicans try to figure out how to meet the demands of a suffering electorate that now seems to perpetually crave change. And how to keep their jobs in 2012.

"Maybe it is a message from the American public. We've got a Democrat in the White House. We'll have a majority Republican governors. We'll have a Democratic Senate, Republican House," Democratic Party Chairman Tim Kaine said well before the election was over. "Everybody's got to work together."

If they can.

Republicans and Democrats have opposite - and deeply ingrained - viewpoints on tax, health care, and fiscal policy, making it hard to see how they would find solutions both sides could accept. They agree that stimulating the economy and creating jobs should be at the top of the list, but they part ways over how to accomplish those goals.

If there is a model for the way forward in recent history, it is provided by President Bill Clinton, who established himself as more of a centrist by working with Republicans to pass welfare reform after Democrats lost their grip on Congress in 1994. But Mr Obama and the Republicans would be hard pressed to find a similar defining issue that would address economic anxiety.

That is particularly true given how much more partisan Capitol Hill - and the political parties themselves - have become in recent years. It is getting even more polarised as voters elect staunchly conservative tea party-backed Republicans and fire conservative-to-moderate "blue dog" Democrats.

Bowing to the new balance of power, the White House said Mr Obama called the two top Republicans - Ohio Rep. John Boehner and Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell - to tell each that he was "looking forward to working with him and the Republicans to find common ground, move the country forward and get things done for the American people."

But in a sign of acrimony ahead, Republicans put the president on notice that the Republicans' co-operation was conditional.

"We hope President Mr Obama will now respect the will of the people, change course, and commit to making the changes they are demanding. To the extent he is willing to do this, we are ready to work with him," said Boehner, who expects to be House speaker in January.

For now, this much is clear from the elections midway through Mr Obama's term: a country in economic crisis is - from the voters to the politicians - enormously conflicted over the way forward.

An Associated Press analysis of preliminary exit poll results showed that most voters agreed that they were dissatisfied with Mr Obama and the Congress. And they did not have a favourable view of either the Democratic or Republican parties. They also were intensely frustrated with the way the federal government is working. And most thought the country was seriously on the wrong track.

But three equal segments of voters picked different top priorities for the next Congress: tackling the budget deficit, spending money to create jobs and cutting taxes. They also differed on whether to extend broad tax cuts enacted under President George Bush or change the health care overhaul enacted this year.

There was majority agreement that the economy was the top concern. Yet again, solutions differed dramatically: A third apiece thought the government's 814 billion dollar stimulus program helped the economy, hurt the economy or made no difference.

An ailing America took out its economic anger on the party in power.

Republicans posted huge gains at all levels of government, rising to power in the House and cutting into the Democrats' majority in the Senate. It was a stunning rebuke to a Democratic president and his Capitol Hill allies who - as the economy tanked - pumped in enormous amounts of money to try to stop the slide.

As politicians embark on their new reality, Americans' grim reality is unchanged. The crushing remnants of the Great Recession remain. Nearly 15 million Americans are still without work. More than two million households are in foreclosure. Bankruptcies are near record levels. And none of it is showing much sign of abating anytime soon.

The brutal truth is that chances are slim a two-party government will agree on any measures to prod a swift turnaround. And even if they could agree on what to try, it is largely out of the politicians' hands - regardless of who is in charge.

The Federal Reserve will weigh in Wednesday, when it meets to decide its next move on the economy. But even it is running out of options, and a long slog to full recovery is expected no matter what it does.

Throughout the campaign, each party suggested that it alone had the answer for future prosperity. Republicans argued that Mr Obama's policies were making times tougher, while Democrats claimed that the Republicans would return to the policies that caused the financial meltdown.

With fewer allies in Congress, the president now must figure out how far he's willing to bend to pass his agenda ahead of the 2012 presidential election. And, with voters watching for results, the Republicans all but certainly will have to retool their opposition to his entire legislative platform or risk being booted from office in the next election.

As his likely re-election campaign approaches, it may be in Mr Obama's interests to compromise with the Republicans as the Democratic president seeks to win back the centre of the electorate he lost favour with in his first two years. Intent on derailing him, Republicans already have signalled they are likely to fight him at every turn; the Republicans are itching to force Mr Obama to veto bills that could create jobs or cut spending.

That is a recipe for gridlock, stand-offs and partisanship.

If Mr Obama and the Republicans do reach for consensus, it is tough to see any issues where they would be willing to meet in the middle - or that a divided country would be willing to embrace.

Belfast Telegraph