With a splendid second inauguration behind him, Barack Obama sits down at his desk this morning to grapple with a huge agenda of problems and opportunities, challenges and openings, dangers and adventures at home and abroad.

“America’s possibilities are limitless,” the President proclaimed yesterday beneath a blue sky and bright sun, “for we possess all the qualities that this world without boundaries demands: youth and drive, diversity and openness, an endless capacity for risk and a gift for reinvention.”

We will need all of that and more, and so will he.

Speaking from the West Front of the Capitol, the President sounded like the most confident lame duck in recent memory (think George W. confronting the morass in Iraq, Bill Clinton already tempted by Monica, Ronald Reagan, tiring and already embroiled in the early stages of Iran-Contra.) Obama was unapologetic about his agenda, from immigration reform to gay rights, and once again invited Congressional Republicans to join him in pursuing it. The GOP Speaker of the House, John Boehner, squinted into the sun with a sour look. The contrast between the two men spoke volumes.

Looking back over the last six months or so, say, since the nomination of Mitt Romney, the most striking development in American politics is not the re-election of the President or the relative status quo in Congress, it is the virtual disintegration of the Republican Party.

Who leads that party today and what does it stand for?

Is it Boehner, who cannot control his own caucus? Is it Senator Mitch McConnell, who sat expressionless in the crowd of faces behind the President yesterday? Four years ago, he laid down a marker by declaring his number one objective to be confining President Obama to a single term.

Is it Eric Cantor, who looked none too happy himself on the dais? Is it the Tea Party, with its response of “No” to virtually everything the President proposes?

What does the GOP stand for? Smaller government, yes; reduced debt, yes. But is less really more? Is it an answer to persistent unemployment and sluggish growth? To persistent challenges abroad? What is the affirmative Republican strategy and who will articulate it, not just now but in the run-up to 2016? Paul Ryan? Marco Rubio? Who will reach out to an increasingly diverse America?

Never have there been so many unanswered questions about the policies and future of a major American political party.

And yet, history illustrates that political fortunes are cyclical, that a party that reaches its nadir will come back up, that politics abhors a vacuum. Republicans remain powerful in statehouses, especially in the south and southwest, and their financial backers are far from tapped out. So the status quo will change.

But it is hard, in the first full week of a new Presidential term, to see when and how and who will lead that change.

The Other Nine Per Cent

Recent public opinion polls — I am sure you’ve seen them — suggest that nine per cent of the American public actually approves of Congress and the way it is doing its job. Of course, that was before this weekend’s bi-partisan wrangling over the payroll tax cut extension.

Who exactly are these nine per cent?

I am curious, since they are such a distinctive group. After all, nine per cent approval is an historic low, even for Congress, exceeded by the approval ratings for polygamy (11 per cent,) BP’s handling of the oil spill (16 per cent,) banks (23 per cent,) and pornography (30 per cent.)

So, I went looking for the nine per cent. I called my neighbor, Representative Pete Stark, D. CA, assuming that he, after 38 years in Congress, surely approved of what he and his 434 colleagues were doing. Are you one of the nine per cent, Pete?

“Heavens, no!” said Congressman Stark.”

And who did he think were the nine per cent?

“Our staff, and our relatives,” he said with a laugh, “and probably not all of them.” I might add that Pete said this on Sunday, as he headed in to the Capitol to cast a rare weekend vote that failed to break the deadlock.

So, who are these nine per cent who think Congress is on top of its work these days?

Add up the Congressional staff, who number around 20,000, lobbyists whose clients have come out on top, the famous special interests, the capitol police, the cafeteria staff, even the bloated office of the architect of the capitol and you still don’t come anywhere near the nine percent, which would amount to some 27 million Americans.

I went to a couple of holiday parties over the weekend and asked everyone I met whether they approved of the way Congress was doing its job. Nope. No nine-percenters there.

If anyone reading this blog is part of the nine per cent, please comment and let me know. And tell me exactly what it is that you approve, please. Is it the fun way Congress takes everything down to the wire? Is it the tendency, demonstrated again over the weekend and into this week to kick the can down the road?

How about the way Congress dealt with the President’s much-advertised jobs bill, which was pronounced D.O.A. when it arrived on the Hill? Did you approve of the way they handled that? Or deficit reduction? Or judicial appointments? Or ambassadorial nominees? Or the head of the Consumer Financial Protection Agency? Do you love the way they advise and consent on these things? Did you approve of the way they flirted with default a few months ago over the debt ceiling, sending the markets into a tailspin and dropping the nation’s credit rating? If you like delay, gridlock, logjams and half-a-loaf legislation, I suppose you love Congress.

Just guessing here, but I suspect Barak Obama’s greatest shock upon assuming the presidency was how incredibly hard it is to get anything through a divided Congress.
That is, a Senate where 60 votes are required to agree on the time of day. And the House of Representatives, controlled by a majority that, as we saw this weekend, can’t control its own majority. The President, and all of us, are learning that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell meant precisely what he said after the 2008 elections when he announced that his major goal was to assure that Barak Obama was a one-term President. That, and nothing more, apparently.

None of this Congressional inaction comes cheap, incidentally. This year, the American taxpayer will shell out $5.4 billion to fund Congress, its staff and perks. That includes the members, staff, gold-plated health care, generous pensions, the House gym and chaplains for each chamber. Evidently, the nine per cent feels they are getting their money’s worth, since they approve.

So, while the current focus is on presidential race, perhaps more attention should be paid to who leads and controls Congress, that co-equal and disputatious branch of government. How about a few televised debates among the leaders about how they intend to handle things in the next Congress? That could be entertaining.

Meanwhile, will the other nine per cent please stand up?