The closeness of the presidential race suggests that Americans remain so divided over the direction of the country that achieving compromise on major issues will remain just as difficult in the foreseeable future as it's been in the recent past.
The latest polls show a dead heat between President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney. Each candidate is offering a different set of prescriptions to heal the economy, create jobs, and define the role of government in national life.
No matter who wins the election on Tuesday, it's likely that the next president will face a Congress where no party holds full sway. It's very possible that the House will stay under the control of Republicans and the Senate will remain under Democratic control. But regardless of which party has a majority in a particular chamber, it's likely that neither will have a sufficient number of votes in the entire Congress to work its will. That's a recipe for more deadlock.
The news media and the punditocracy have been focusing, as usual, on horserace stories based on the idea of who's ahead. But there is a larger reality that's too often ignored: Washington's stalemate reflects a polarized electorate that won't change any time soon.
Young people 18 to 29 years old support Obama by about 20 percentage points over Romney. Meanwhile, older folks over 60 back Romney by a similar margin, according to the Politico/GWU Battleground poll. There are gaps between women, who tend to support Obama, and men, who tend to support Romney. And there are massive divisions between white voters, who support Romney, and African-Americans and Hispanics, who back Obama.
Reflecting this polarization, the debate over the latest unemployment numbers illustrates the antagonism between the parties. Reacting to the Labor Department report Friday that the jobless rate in October had inched up from 7.8 percent to 7.9 percent, Romney said, "Today's increase in the unemployment rate is a sad reminder that the economy is at a virtual standstill. The jobless rate is higher than it was when President Obama took office, and there are still 23 million Americans struggling for work. On Tuesday, America will make a choice between stagnation and prosperity."
Romney went on to argue for his program of lower taxes, less federal regulation, more international trade, fewer restrictions on small business, and other conservative policies.
Rep. Tom Price of Georgia, chairman of the House Republican Policy Committee, blasted Obama's economic program and called for a conservative correction: "After trillions wasted on failed stimulus projects, a takeover of our health care system, and preferential industry bailouts, all President Obama has to show for it is $16 trillion in national debt, $5.5 trillion of which came from just four years of his failed leadership."
Price went on to point out that the Republican-controlled House has passed "30 jobs bills that would help stabilize and grow our economy," but the White House and congressional Democrats have rejected them.
On the other side, the Obama administration is defending its economic policies. "While more work remains to be done, today's employment report provides further evidence that the U.S. economy is continuing to heal from the wounds inflicted by the worst downturn since the Great Depression," said Alan Krueger, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers. "It is critical that we continue the policies that are building an economy that works for the middle class as we dig our way out of the deep hole that was caused by the severe recession that began in December 2007."
Krueger noted that the economy has added private-sector jobs for 32 consecutive months. He called for congressional Republicans to pass an extension of middle-class tax cuts, investments in infrastructure, and other Democratic initiatives.
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Ken Walsh covers the White House and politics for U.S. News. He writes the daily blog "Ken Walsh's Washington" for usnews.com and is the author of "The Presidency" column for the U.S. News Weekly. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Facebook and Twitter.