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Leadership the unspoken issue of the presidential race; President Obama and GOP challenger Mitt Romney have avoided one key question in the campaign: Can Washington govern?

Big issues are on the table as President Obama and Republican candidate Mitt Romney begin the general election campaign: jobs and the economy, the future of health care, taxes, spending, the size and scope of government.

But missing is any serious discussion of the one question that overrides all others: Can Washington govern?

The symbol of the breakdown is the ongoing stalemate over the economy and the country's fiscal problems. The next showdown could come during a lame-duck session of Congress after the November election when the George W. Bush tax cuts are due to expire and the big across-the-board spending cuts -- agreed to last year after multiple breakdowns in negotiations -- are set to take effect.

Or that showdown could be delayed by a series of maneuvers designed, once again, to buy time and save face. Another game of chicken over the debt ceiling probably won't take place until sometime early next year, but House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, set off alarms last week by hinting at another round of brinksmanship.

This weekend's Group of Eight meetings at Camp David underscore the consequences of governments' failures to deal effectively with their economic problems in ways that can gain public support. Still, at the start of the general election campaign, there appears to be a disconnect between what everyone knows is coming after the election and what is being done to bring about a better outcome.

Each party looks to the elections as a moment when voters will repudiate the other side and provide a mandate to the winner to implement its agenda. Three previous elections, two won by the Democrats and the third by the Republicans, should be enough to show the limitations of that all-or-nothing thinking. How will the two candidates use the election to build support for real solutions?

Romney raised the debt issue as he campaigned around the country last week, appearing with a debt clock ticking in the background. In Iowa, he talked about "a prairie fire of debt" and pledged to lead the country out of "the spending and debt inferno."

Romney is preaching to the choir in the Republican base: Congressional Republicans, prodded by tea party freshmen in the House, have taken an unyielding no-taxes position in deficit negotiations, and Romney has followed their lead. The former Massachusetts governor also has said he will not consider raising taxes to deal with the deficit. In fact, he would cut them dramatically.

On these issues, his party has defined him more than he has defined his party.

Though he often talks about how he worked with Democrats in the Massachusetts legislature, there is nothing in Romney's campaign platform to suggest that, as president, he would challenge the hard-liners in his party. Given some of the problems he had with very conservative voters during the primaries, it is not surprising that he is sticking to the party line.

Romney has embraced the budget blueprint put forward by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., a plan that has yet to win any real popular support. He is on record opposing a hypothetical budget deal that was raised by Fox News anchor Bret Baier in a GOP debate last year calling for $10 in spending cuts for every dollar in new revenues.

In terms of dealing with the deficit, Obama has public opinion on his side, at least broadly, but he faces questions about the depth of his leadership. Every group of note that has studied the issue of deficits, spending and entitlements -- most prominently the report by the commission headed by former Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wyo., and former Clinton White House chief of staff Erskine Bowles -- has concluded that a solution must include significant spending cuts and some new revenue. The public agrees.

Obama also favors higher taxes on the wealthiest Americans, another position that enjoys significant popular support, even if it falls far short of solving the country's long-term fiscal problem.

Last year's negotiations over the budget deficit have been played and replayed in a series of articles and books that have attempted to sort out the blame for the breakdown.

The president and White House officials are eager to say the stalemate is the Republicans' responsibility, but they are mindful that last summer's breakdown damaged the president as well as the GOP. A fundamental part of Obama's message four years ago was the assertion that he would change the way Washington works, an aspiration he has been unable to fulfill.

He may not be the principal cause of the stalemate, but voters may wonder whether he has a solution. Though he was in serious negotiations with Boehner a year ago, Obama has drawn criticism for failing to offer more forceful leadership. He established the Simpson-Bowles commission but declined at key moments to push for its consideration and enactment.

Obama also knows the key to re-election rests on his ability to build public confidence in his leadership on the economy and to discredit Romney on that issue. He also needs a series of monthly jobs reports that look better than the last two.