From illegal immigrants to defense contractors and millionaires to Medicaid patients, Americans had plenty riding on Tuesday's outcome — but few were expecting the election to provide answers to the gridlock that has prevented Washington from tackling the big issues.
The agenda is extensive and seemingly growing longer every week: Another trillion-dollar deficit is looming in 2013, debt has topped $16 trillion, the immigration system is broken, the tax code needs an overhaul, gas prices and unemployment remain stubbornly high, a final decision on the Keystone pipeline lingers, Iran's nuclear program looms ever larger, and al Qaeda may be resurgent in parts of the Middle East.
Some problems won't even wait for Inauguration Day, Jan. 20.
The new year will usher in higher income taxes across the board as the George W. Bush-era tax cuts are due to expire Jan. 1.
One day later, the $110 billion in automatic spending "sequesters" set in motion by last year's debt deal take effect, slashing equally from defense and domestic spending.
But an angry electorate begging for change did little to upset the balance of power in Washington, where gridlock has reigned and shows no signs of letting up.
"There are lots of things we have failed to do for a very long time, but that is not to say that we won't fail to do them a bit longer," said William A. Galston, a political analyst at the Brookings Institution.
President Obama and Mitt Romney both crisscrossed the country this year saying voters were choosing between vastly different solutions to the country's problems. Both agreed that Mr. Obama's approach involved more government while Mr. Romney's solution was lower taxes.
"Paul [Ryan] and I have not promised you a bigger check from the government, and we haven't promised to take from some people and redistribute to you — we've instead promised to rebuild the economy and to tame the growth of government and restore the principles that made America the greatest nation in the history of the earth," Mr. Romney said Monday on the campaign trail.
For his part, Mr. Obama described the election as "not just a choice between two candidates or two parties — it is a choice between two different visions for America."
But there was little chance voters were going to break what essentially has been a tie in American government over the past two years.
"At this point, there's no more definitives in American politics," said Julian E. Zelizer, a political historian at Princeton University. "If Congress and the president have trouble dealing with the little things, there's no way you can predict they will deal with the big things."
One area where both sides in Washington have said they expect to see action next year is immigration.
Mr. Obama, who in 2008 pledged to make immigration reform a first-year priority, repeated that pledge this time. Mr. Romney, too, said the immigration system was calling for reform — particularly on the legal side, though he also said he would work on a permanent answer for the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants already here.
"Immigration reform — it's still the issue that keeps not working," Mr. Zelizer said. "But there's potential there because both parties see this huge electoral vote there and neither has been able to capture it, though Democrats seem to do better."
He said there's a realization in both parties that the status quo is not viable.
In the near term, young illegal immigrants were waiting to see whether they still would be able to get tentative legal status next year — something Mr. Obama enacted but Mr. Romney said he would halt.
Even as businesses and immigrant rights groups push for an immigration deal, though, there's scant evidence that voters want to see action when the economy still dominates.
The problem for all sides is the math that says you can't boost the economy and lower the deficit at the same time.
The Congressional Budget Office said allowing taxes to rise and spending to be cut — which current law calls for at the beginning of January — would put the budget back on track toward some stability. But it also would send the country careening into a double-dip recession.
Delaying those spending cuts and tax increases would boost the economy now but would mean an even deeper recession later.
Democrats and Republicans spent most of the past year arguing over different solutions to cancel the spending cuts, "they couldn't find them before the election, so I don't know how that works out," said former Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, who runs the Republican Main Street Partnership, the coalition of moderate lawmakers in the GOP.
Mr. Davis said Congress could let the deadline slip past Jan. 1 but would have to be quick to act early next year because otherwise "the genie is out of the bottle."
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