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Analysis: United but divided

WASHINGTON (AP) — America is united in its frustration over the economy, over Washington, over where the country is heading.

But it’s deeply split about how to fix some of the nation’s biggest woes — a ballooning federal debt, near 10 percent joblessness and a sluggish recovery.

Now a divided government could be taking shape, with President Barack Obama and ascendent Republicans facing 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 polarized country that can’t 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 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.

For now, this much is clear from Tuesday’s elections: 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 and pre-election polls shows that 39 percent of voters say the budget deficit should be the next Congress’ top priority; roughly the same slice say spending money to create jobs should be job No. 1; and 19 percent say cutting taxes should come first.

Disagreements are even in the details: 39 percent say broad tax cuts enacted under George W. Bush should be continued for all. About the same number say the tax cuts should be extended for all but the wealthiest wage earners, while 15 percent say they should expire for everyone.

On another huge issue, close to half of voters want to repeal the health care overhaul Obama enacted this year, while about the same number want to expand it even further or leave it in place.

For all the differences, most voters agreed that they were deeply dissatisfied with Obama and the Congress. And they didn’t have a favorable 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.

There also was near unanimous agreement that the economy was the top concern. Nearly all voters were worried about the future direction of it, and about 4 in 10 said they are worse off financially than they were two years ago. Yet again, solutions differed dramatically: A third apiece thought the government’s $814 billion stimulus program helped the economy, hurt the economy or made no difference.

With economic fears fueling an antiestablishment fervor, Americans were taking out their anger on the party in power.

Republicans were on track to post huge gains at all levels of government, perhaps large enough to rise to power in the House if not the Senate. It would be 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.

But no matter the outcome, the crushing remnants of the Great Recession remain. Nearly 15 million Americans are still without work. More than 2 million households are in foreclosure. Bankruptcies are near record levels. And none of it’s showing much sign of abating anytime soon.

The brutal truth is that chances are slim a two-party government would agree on any measures to prod a swift turnaround. And even if they could agree on what to try, it’s 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 Obama’s policies were making times tougher, while Democrats claimed that the GOP would return to the policies that caused the financial meltdown.

Now, they’ll have to work together — if they can.

Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill 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’s 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 Obama and the Republicans would be hard pressed to find a similar defining issue that would address economic anxiety.

That’s particularly true given how much more partisan Capitol Hill — and the political parties themselves — have become in recent years. It’s about to get even more polarized as voters elect tea party-backed Republicans and fire conservative-to-moderate “blue dog” Democrats.

With fewer allies in Congress, Obama will have to 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 GOP will all but certainly have to retool its 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 Obama’s interests to compromise with the GOP as the Democratic president seeks to win back the center of the electorate he lost favor with in his first two years. Intent on derailing him, Republicans already have signaled they’re likely to fight him at every turn; the GOP is itching to force Obama to veto bills that could create jobs or cut spending.

That’s the recipe for gridlock, standoffs, partisanship.

If Obama and the GOP do reach for consensus, it’s tough to see any issues where they’d be willing to meet in the middle — or that a divided country would be willing to embrace.

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EDITOR’S NOTE — Liz Sidoti has covered national politics for The Associated Press since 2003.

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