WASHINGTON — The next president will be under fire to get millions of people back to work, shrink a soaring federal debt, end America’s longest war, unite a divided country and prevent Iran from building a bomb that could unnerve the world.
And that’s just what comes after the inauguration.
The work that begins right after Tuesday’s election could determine whether the White House and Congress can keep the country from plunging back into recession in the new year. That’s because without action by the nation’s leaders, a battery of tax increases and spending cuts will kick in come January, making life harder for families and endangering the economic recovery.
Win or lose, President Barack Obama will be in charge until Jan. 20, which means dealing with this “fiscal cliff” is his problem. But Republican Mitt Romney wants to have a significant stamp on the matter as president-elect if he wins.
The economy, stable but struggling, will drive the agenda in the next term. It touches all the core issues that the election has been about — middle-class security, job creation, home values, taxes, basic opportunity for a better life.
The next president will not be dealing with the combined chaos of a financial sector, an employment picture and a stock market in free-fall, all of which started to consume Obama even before he was sworn in on Jan. 20, 2009.
Yet the public will expect results soon.
More than 23 million people are unemployed, working part time when they want full-time jobs or out of patience looking for work. Obama and Romney have both promised a more robust rebound, but they’re deeply divided over the best ways to get there.
The new president probably will get to nominate at least one Supreme Court justice, if not up to three, as Vice President Joe Biden has suggested. Even one such lifetime appointment could tip the ideological balance of the high court.
And the world will not wait to test the next president, either.
Iran’s yearslong standoff with the West over its nuclear program is intensifying. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has warned that allies have until next summer to stop Iran from having the capability to build a nuclear bomb. Whatever the timeline, the U.S. president will be under pressure to rally partners, enforce already crippling penalties and deepen the threat of military intervention to keep Iran in check, or risk seeing the United States pulled into another war.
Other international crises demanding American leadership are everywhere.
Syria’s civil war has left more than 30,000 dead and counting. Israelis and Palestinians are nowhere near peace. Europe’s financial troubles threaten America’s economic stability. Mexico’s fight against guns and drugs is on the U.S. door step. The Arab Spring has faded into fears of instability and, in one case, left four dead Americans in Libya.
The threat of terrorism may no longer hang over daily life in the United States, but it will for the president, whose most sacred job is protecting America. And that prison for suspected terrorists in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba? Still open.
The U.S.-led war in Afghanistan is still going, too, after more than 11 years. The United States and its partners plan to end the war at the close of 2014. The president must decide when and how to pull home the 68,000 U.S. troops who remain and whether to cut a deal with the Afghan government to leave some lasting U.S. military presence after that.
At home, the presidential winner is likely to find struggles Congress. Obama, the Democrat, is almost certain to be contending again with a Republican-led House. Even if voters choose Romney, they may well keep the Senate in control of Democrats, which would limit his legislative agenda.
Indeed, the basic state of Washington politics is broken.
The next president will inherit that problem, which is often beyond the president’s ability to fix despite campaign promises, as Obama and Republican George W. Bush before him found.
Should the election be a close as polls suggest, the president in 2013 will be leading a nation in which about half the people voted against him. Most states are so decidedly Democratic or Republican they were not even contested this year. In a country built by dreamers, hope and optimism are sagging.
The impending fiscal crisis will have a cascading effect on the next presidential term.
How it is resolved will shape the chances of serious change ahead on tax law and entitlement programs such as Medicare.
January is on pace to bring across-the-board spending cuts of $109 billion, which, in real terms, would undermine the military and the core functions of government. The cuts were never intended to take effect. They were an onerous incentive for lawmakers to reach a broad deficit-reduction deal, but that never happened.
The fiscal cliff also gets its name from a series of expiring tax cuts. Romney wants to extend all the Bush-era tax cuts. Obama wants to extend them only for individuals making less than $200,000 and married couples making less than $250,000. The new president also will have to get Congress to increase the debt limit again to avoid a crippling default.
The debt is now above $16 trillion, with cries from every corner to reduce that figure or risk a choking of the economy.
It’s one of the best known challenges awaiting: The unknown. A drought, a bridge collapse, a mass shooting, a major oil spill.
It will be the job of the next president of the United States, ultimately, to handle everything.
Associated Press Andrew Taylor and Mark Sherman contributed to this story.