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david shribman

Don't look now, but we're in an American election season.

Not a presidential election; that process seems endless, but in truth the 45th president won't be chosen for nearly three more years. This is a midterm congressional election year, and the fact that all 435 seats in the House and a third of the Senate will be contested warps all in its path. It adds a political tinge to everything done on Capitol Hill, it raises the stakes on even the most routine legislation before each chamber, it diverts attention and resources from the important matters at hand.

Because there are matters of importance at hand – more, in fact, than a handful of them. They include:

Spending and taxing issues.

These are the hardy perennials of Washington, and they bloom even in winter, or especially in winter. Last winter was the fiscal cliff. This year lawmakers face a valley of despair – too many claims for funding, too little disposable revenue. Plus this: ardent Democratic demands for social spending, resolute Republican demands for tax and spending cuts. This is a recipe for more of the frustration and stalemate that have characterized the past three years.

Nuclear matters.

The dangers inherent in an unstable North Korea and an uncertain Iran cast a shadow on all aspects of American national security, from geopolitical pressures to terrorism. The Obama administration's outreach to Iran has troubled Israel, and the North Korean regime's inscrutability has unsettled East Asia. Administration officials are chary of the word "containment" – too many Cold War overtures to that term – but containing these threats is Job One of the State Department. Look for these two issues to dominate American diplomacy in the first quarter of 2014.

The American profile.

It did not take long for Secretary of State John Kerry to escape the large shadow of his predecessor, Hillary Clinton (more on her in the months to come, as maneuvering for the 2016 presidential election begins). In an instant he became a commanding presence in the halls of diplomacy and even in some unpleasant, benighted corners of the world. Together he and Ms. Clinton have presented an activist profile around the globe.

Now Barack Obama enters Year Two of his final term, and if he follows a well-trod path, he'll pivot from frustrations at home to opportunities abroad. Watch for him to be more visible on the world scene, not only at set-piece international meetings like the G-20 and the annual autumn speech at the United Nations, but also in unpredictable venues. Which leads us to:

Cuba.

The president's unexpected but much-analysed handshake with Raul Castro in South Africa in mid December raised eyebrows (among students of the Caribbean), hackles (among conservatives) and hopes (among those impatient for a new era in relations between America and its island neighbour). Cuban-American relations have always had an awkward context, having about them a whiff of, in turn, colonialism, slavery, human rights violations, imperialism, organized crime, revolution, big-power politics, nuclear confrontation, boycotts.

The rapprochement with China in the late 1970s seemed inevitable by the beginning of the decade and almost an anti-climax when formal relations with Beijing finally were sealed. The same feeling surrounds Cuba, where Fidel Castro is in eclipse and where the hunger for investment if not all-out capitalism is palpable. Don't be surprised if Mr. Obama follows his handshake with a visit.

Entitlements.

This is the problem that won't go away and won't be fixed. Early in February the president will deliver his Fiscal 2015 budget and almost certainly he is going to have to address the unavoidable mathematics of the retirement supplements known as Social Security and the old-age medical benefits called Medicare. The American economist Herbert Stein is famous for his remark that something that can't go on forever can't go on forever. Two things cannot go on forever: The rise in the number of beneficiaries relative to the number of taxpayers to fund both these entitlement programs. And the delay in addressing this problem. Taking it on requires courage. Only a president not seeking another term can dare it. Which takes us to the final item:

The burdens of legacy.

This is a time in a two-term presidency when the thoughts of American chief executives turn to how they'll look in history. George W. Bush was unusually sanguine about this prospect; he said that the revival of his reputation probably wouldn't occur during his lifetime. Most other presidents, especially Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, made their legacies an important part of their late-presidential agendas.

So, too, might Mr. Obama, who is insured of a place in history for his very presence, as a black man, in the White House, but whose sense of mission – on full display during his eulogy to Nelson Mandela last month – may require a grand exit. Or a surprise. And the thing about surprises is that if we knew what they were, they wouldn't be surprises. But if the entrance of Mr. Obama into the White House was itself a surprise, it should not be entirely unexpected if his exit from the White House were accompanied by one as well.

David Shribman, executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, won a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of U.S. politics.