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david shribman

The yellow security tape has been removed from the national monuments, the Panda Cam has been turned on again at the National Zoo, the hiking trails in remote wildernesses are accessible again to the adventurous and the hale, federal employees are back at work (and with back pay). But the same cast of characters still occupies the White House, the Congress and the think tanks – an iron triangle of intransigence that produced a 16-day government shutdown that failed to address America's budget or debt challenges.

So where do they go from here – and can they get anywhere?

"Right now they have a big opportunity," Trey Grayson, the director of of the Institute of Politics at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, said in an interview. "But nothing will come of it unless there's a recognition that the time is now."

Mr. Grayson is right that the time is now – and he might have added that time is short.

The United States is in its fifth year of economic torpor, its debt remains staggering, the bill for its entitlement spending is spinning out of control and in several months the entire House and a third of the Senate will be running in primaries or girding for general-election battles. The midterm congressional elections in the sixth year of a presidency customarily are not for the faint of heart.

Every political pundit and blogger south of the 49th parallel has weighed in with commentary on the damage and danger of the shutdown showdown. But now that the dust – an especially heavy layer of dust – has cleared, the sunshine of a new week reveals these opportunities – and challenges:

Barack Obama – For months the president has disappointed members of his liberal and activist base, astonishing them with his failure to apply his erudition and fluency on the campaign trail to what Theodore Roosevelt described as the bully pulpit of the White House; troubling them with his instinct to strike militarily, in Syria, Libya, and Somalia; and bewildering them with his reluctance to take the lead in congressional negotiations on budget matters. Now he is the liberals' rector of rectitude: a strong commander-in-chief in the war against the Republican insurgents in the House and an adept tactician in the battle to save the health-care overhaul that goes by his name. His opportunity and challenge: Stay on the offensive, stay the course.

John Boehner – Given to emotion and worried about the rebels to his right, the House speaker entered the shutdown crisis in a beleaguered state, worrying that his speakership and the Republican House majority would emerge from the ordeal irreparably damaged. Instead, he found that the rebels he sought to keep at bay found him to be a safe harbor of practicality, balancing their need to assail Mr. Obama and Obamacare with the party's need to salvage its reputation as the political force most attuned to business and fiscal responsibility. He held out long enough to assure his credibility with his right flank and then sealed a deal that retained his credibility as a trustee of the national interest. His opportunity and challenge: Channel the passion of the insurgents in his talks with the president but retain his position as the party wise man.

The rebels – For all their ardor, for all their insistence that they would nether bend nor break, they won nothing in their struggle to defund or repeal Obamacare. But, because of the peculiarities of the American election system – with districts carved out for the benefit of incumbents, left and (especially) right – they very likely will pay no price for the perception that they prompted, and then prolonged, the government shutdown. Instead, they will argue that the crisis was the president's fault. Their opportunity and challenge: Harness their passion to extend their power by extending their reach into other vulnerable congressional districts.

Now here is the problem that is threatening to strangle American politics:

The opportunities and challenges for all the principals in the Washington drama force them apart, not together. The president's biggest opening is to stick to his liberal guns, the speaker's biggest opportunity is to maintain his position with the insurgents, the rebels' main chance is to extend their reach in elections 13 months from now. There remains no clear path forward to consensus on how to address the crisis. Indeed, that is the biggest crisis of all.