The easiest part is over.
After defeating Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential election by winning eight of nine swing states, President Barack Obama is heading back to the White House for a second term. But as if running a presidential campaign and the most influential country in the world at the same time wasn't enough of a challenge, Obama will face what could be his most daunting task as Head of State: negotiating a bridge over the infamous impending "fiscal cliff" with the Republican-dominated House of Representatives.
The fiscal cliff is a term for a series of across-the-board budget cuts implemented during last summer's budget crisis coupled with the expiration of the Bush-era tax cuts. Essentially, the president and Congress put a gun to their collective heads, forcing them to hammer out another deal after the election or risk sending the American economy into another recession.
This is where it gets harder.
Politicians and pundits on both sides of the aisle say that falling off of the cliff must be avoided at all costs. The problem? Doing so means Obama must negotiate a deal with the three men who once avowed to make him a one-term president.
John Boehner (R-Ohio), the Speaker of the House, Eric Cantor (R-Virginia), the House Majority Leader and Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky), the Senate Minority Leader, are the three most powerful Republicans in a stagnant Congress with a nine percent approval rating. After Republicans took control of the House in the 2010 midterm elections, Boehner, Cantor and McConnell spearheaded the unilateral GOP opposition to everything Obama and the Democratic Party proposed with the hopes of limiting him to one term.
The problem? Not only did nothing get done in Congress (due in part to reciprocated partisanship by Democrats), but it didn't work. Obama is back, and now Boehner and company have lost their leverage: an uncertain future for the president.
Now Boehner, as the figurehead and pointman for the Republican side of the legislature, seems willing to be open-minded if for no other reason than fear of falling off the fiscal cliff.
Boehner and his contingent initially opposed increasing government revenue to help reduce the deficit in principle, but the Speaker said he is now willing to entertain the idea, even calling on Obama to lead Congress, "not as Democrats or Republicans, but as Americans," in a press conference the day after the election.
Kenneth Janda, the Payson S. Wild Professor Emeritus of political science at Northwestern University, attributes part of Boehner's flexibility to a strained relationship with Eric Cantor, the House Majority Leader who Dr. Janda said was much less willing to work with Obama than the Speaker.
"Relationships will be as strained as before," Janda wrote in an email, "but this time Boehner knows that the tea partiers are in a weaker position. I expect [Boehner] to stand up more to Cantor and engage more cooperatively with Obama."
David Axelrod, Obama's senior campaign strategist, called Boehner's new stance "encouraging" on CBS's Face The Nation last Sunday, but also called Obama's reelection a referendum on the most prominent issue impeding a deal from being made: taxes.
While he may be willing to increase government revenue, Boehner has vowed not to increase taxes on any Americans, instead insisting on the full extension of all Bush-era tax cuts. Boehner claims that a lower, simpler tax rate would stimulate economic growth, thereby rendering a government tax hike or lack of tax reduction unnecessary.
However, Obama promised that he would not pass a bill that lowers tax rates for those with a household income of $250,000 or more, which by default includes any bill that extends all of the Bush-era tax cuts. Obama claims that it is imperative to those who can afford to pay more do so to help reduce the deficit and that most Americans agree by virtue of his reelection.
Out of all fiscal cliff issues that need to be addressed, taxes are far and away the most divisive one. Members of both parties agree – albeit to varying degrees – that entitlement programs like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security need to be reformed for financial sustainability. Republicans agreed to cut the military budget in the August 2011 deal that created the fiscal cliff. However, taxes remain the one issue where neither party shares very much ground.
What will happen?
To be perfectly honest, it's hard to say right now just what will happen over the course of the next few weeks. The president and Congress have a very limited time frame within which they can work before the legislature is adjourned for the winter holidays. There are a plethora of different ways this fiscal cliff can be addressed and a handful of distinct scenarios that we may see before (or after) the deadline.
This much is very clear, however. To make a deal, Congress and Obama must do something they have failed to do since the 2010 midterm elections: put politics aside for the benefit of the country.
The August 2011 temporary budget deal put a gun to the head of the American economy. The American government must disarm itself or it will continue to play a game of Russian Roulette with another economic meltdown in the chamber.