Peter Goldmark Peter Goldmark, former publisher of the International Herald

Peter Goldmark writes a weekly column for Newsday. He is former budget director of New York State and publisher of the International Herald Tribune. He headed the climate program at the Environmental Defense Fund. Show More

The year turns, and we get a chance to set a new course for the year ahead of us.

But right now we Americans are a divided people with some old views that work to sharpen, rather than to bridge, our divisions. As one of the world's oldest democracies, we conducted in 2012 our quadrennial presidential election with the usual intensity and noise, the usual extravagant charges and countercharges, and larger-than-usual truckloads of money being flung around. It seemed to work pretty much as a democratic election should. Earlier this month, the members of our Electoral College formally elected Barack Obama to a second term -- notwithstanding the antics of three electors from Arizona who questioned whether Obama was actually a U.S. citizen.

We have begun inching ourselves out of a prolonged and brutal recession that has seen more than 20 million Americans out of work or unable to find enough work. Our economy grew in 2012 at a higher rate than Great Britain's or Europe's. But this progress, gained with such difficulty, was in danger of being knocked out from under us as Congress closes out the year in a highly partisan wrangle about taxes and spending cuts only tenuously connected with fact or common sense.

It seems pretty clear to most of us that to get our fiscal house in order we need both to raise some revenue, particularly from the wealthy who have been treated so generously over the past decade, and to rein in entitlement programs that are growing at a rate we cannot sustain. But the Republicans in the House of Representatives drag their feet on taxes and the Democrats in the House have been slow to address entitlement reform.

And in the early months of 2013, the Congress, with modest changes in membership as a result of the fall election, will debate raising the ceiling on the national debt. It is hard to estimate the chaos and economic damage that will result should members of the House who oppose raising the debt ceiling corral a majority to support them.

"We have sunk to the lowest common denominator in order to get a deal -- sheer panic," Republican strategist Ron Bonjean said to The Washington Post, wondering if it would take a stock market crash to get his party to act responsibly to avert the "fiscal cliff." These are pre-election divisions; they are still with us, and this time they may derail us.

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The evening of the Newtown, Conn., school massacre I watched the TV news with two of my grandchildren. They had never encountered that kind of overwhelming, insane violence. The pictures of Sandy Hook school looked very much like their own school.

The president, who was cautious on gun control in his first term, said he was ready to wade into the issue. The mayor of New York pledged to support elected officials who stand up for limits on the availability of handheld weapons of mass destruction. The National Rifle Association announced that the best policy for schools would be to have a person inside the school armed with a gun. In 2013 we will find out if we are capable of acting to prevent more Newtown massacres, or if the divisions that haunt us will paralyze us there, too.

Trends in the presidential election included signs of a shift of power to a new generation that is younger, more diverse, and more tolerant of different opinions and lifestyles than the generation that precedes it. These new demographics may slowly overcome our divisions, and that may be the most positive long-term trend we have going for us. We could use a few positive trends.

Happy New Year.