At the dawn of a new presidential term and a new Congress, the answers to two questions will shape the course of the next four years:
First, about Republicans: Are green shoots of sanity beginning to appear? Second, about the president: Unchained by electoral considerations, has the real, unabashedly liberal President Obama begun to reveal himself?
My answer to the first question is a tentative yes; to the second, an equally tentative no.
When it comes to Republicans, the most primal political instinct - self-preservation - has belatedly begun to kick in. The last few weeks have offered limited evidence of a new reasonableness.
On immigration, several Republican senators, understanding the relentless electoral politics of immigration, have joined with Democratic colleagues in a push for reform. Perhaps even more significant, if less noticed, a bipartisan group in the House has also been working on a plan.
On the fiscal front, recognizing the self-defeating folly of a second standoff on the debt ceiling, House Republicans agreed to extend the federal government's borrowing authority through May 18.
But Republican rationality has its limits. Particularly among House members, Republicans appear ready to allow the punitive cuts of the sequester to take effect when the deal expires in March. Same for the prospect of a government shutdown later that month when existing funding ends.
And having been hit by Democrats over the punitive impact of the Ryan budget, the House instructed Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan to produce an even more stringent document this time - one that gets to balance in 10 years.
The standoff between the two parties will be, once again, over taxes - specifically, the prospect of additional revenue. As Republicans see it, the $737 billion in new revenue they coughed up in the cliff deal was the end of the matter. Additional revenue, they insist, is off the table.
This attitude is a recipe for gridlock. Republicans act as if fiscal history began with the all revenue-no spending cuts cliff agreement, conveniently forgetting the $1 trillion in cuts previously enacted. And they ignore the difficulty - both substantive and political - of implementing a cuts-only approach to the debt.
Which brings me to the president, who has ruled out an unbalanced debt deal. Is second-term Obama an unbound lefty?
Granted, his second inaugural address was distinctly, and surprisingly, liberal. He paid scant attention to the need for debt reduction while emphasizing the imperatives of slowing climate change, ensuring gay rights and preserving the safety net.
But it also goes way too far to describe the speech, in Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's words, as promoting an "unabashedly, far-left-of-center" agenda. It was a traditional Democratic one.
More important, those who see in the speech a more overtly ideological Obama risk making too much of his assertive tone and substantive detail. There is no reason, for example, to believe that the president who was willing to buck his base and back reductions in Social Security cost-of-living increases has disappeared.
Rather, he remains the pragmatic progressive. Obama is more inclined to the standard liberal vision than, say, Bill Clinton. But he is also more willing than many of his ideological compatriots to make the necessary concessions to political reality.
First-term Obama placed undue faith in his power to overcome partisan divisions. Second-term Obama sees tactical advantage in staking out a position and sticking with it. Whether this approach can help thaw the Washington permafrost remains to be seen.
Email Ruth Marcus at firstname.lastname@example.org