In the wake of Tuesday's terrorist devastation the great machinery of the United State government faces demands for actions that could define what voters think about Washington leadership for years to come.
Issues such as whether the US spends some of the Social Security surplus remain important - but somehow they seem less important today. Both President Bush and the Congress - but especially Mr. Bush - have the burden and opportunity of handling a true crisis, the response to which can cement political reputations in the mind of the nation.
Jimmy Carter was undone by what many judged his ineffective response to the Iranian hostage crisis. John F. Kennedy's handling of the Cuban missile crisis, by contrast, remains perhaps the most lionized aspect of his presidency today.
"How can you wake up this morning and worry about the Social Security lockbox?" says Marlin Fitzwater, press secretary to the former President George Bush. "I think the tendency among Americans is going to be, 'Quit giving me these little arguments, and do what you have to do.' "
That may mean changes in what constitutes national defense. If nothing else, demands for better intelligence about terrorist attacks, and forces designed to stop them, are sure to increase.
Pearl Harbor resulted in both an enormous mobilization of military might and a greater involvement by the government in the day-to-day lives of Americans. The destruction of the World Trade Center and damage wreaked on the Pentagon could result in similar, though less drastic, changes.
Airport security is likely to be tightened. The FBI may gain greater leeway in terrorist investigations. The degree of proof necessary before launching military retaliation overseas may lessen.
America is not - or at least, not yet - literally at war, says historian Arthur Schlesinger. Only in wartime do citizens see federal power as the indispensable locomotive of the nation.
But if nothing else, politics, politicians, and the institutions they control matter more today than they did on Tuesday morning, at 8:00 a.m., minutes before the terrorist strike.
"People are certainly relying on government now to clean up the mess created by this horrible tragedy," says Mr. Schlesinger.
Washington's first concern is likely to be retaliation for the recent attacks. The fact that the attackers left no return address could well make this a difficult issue for Bush, with whom final responsibility for ordering any military action will rest.
But he is likely to face little in the way of domestic political constraint on action. A proportionate response to this week's attacks might go well beyond the lobbing of a few cruise missiles at terrorist training camps.
Second is the issue of the structure of the nation's security apparatus. The FBI, already under fire for perceived bungling in recent spy cases, is likely to receive tough scrutiny, as is the CIA. Isolated voices on Capitol Hill are already calling for a through investigation of why the nation's premier intelligence institutions did not warn of the attacks.
"It is the biggest intelligence blunder in our lifetime," says the conservative Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R) of California.
Then there is the question of shifting money within the defense budget to homeland defense. That is a move some outside experts - and some voices within the military - have long favored. Air defense units dedicated to border protection could be revitalized, for instance.
In that sense, the current situation might be analogous to 1957, when the Soviet Union's launch of Sputnik shocked the nation and galvanized the race into space that culminated with the Apollo moon landings.
Until Sputnik, President Eisenhower had been focused on spending restraint. Afterwards he was forced to spend millions on missiles and space, notes Michael Birkner, a historian at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania. "The rules got changed with Sputnik. The rules got changed with this," he says.
In the longer term, this debate could have a profound effect on what until now has been the Bush administration's top security priority: missile defense.
On the one hand, the attacks could build support for a missile shield. If terrorists did this, the argument will go, they surely would use a nuclear warhead if they had one. Best start now to guard against that eventuality.
The counter argument would be that terrorists did not need a nuke to wreak devastation, and that resources would be better targeted on more realistic threats in the short and medium term.
"The only reasonable response [on missile defense now] is, let's get it back where it was, at the research and development level ... but it would be utter lunacy to say we have to go after it with renewed vigor," says Thomas Mann, a senior analyst at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
But the overarching theme of the next weeks in Washington is likely to be not argument, but unity. After a tragedy of this magnitude, the body politic tends to come together to demonstrate that however bitter the arguments about lockboxes and Social Security and missile defense seem, they should not be interpreted as dangerous divisiveness.
"It puts politics on hold for a while," say" Mr. Mann.
Staff writers Abraham McLaughlin and Dante Chinni contributed to this report.