1. Default, Sequester, and Government Shutdown – Oh My!
While the 2011 debt-ceiling showdown stood alone, the 2013 debt battle comes amid battles over automatic spending reductions known as the "sequester" and the need to pass a federal budget.
So instead of just facing the prospect of default on the nation's debt, there's also $1.2 trillion in spending cuts over the next decade (the sequester) and the specter of government services grinding to a halt unless a budget or temporary continuing resolution is passed.
This may change the politics of the debt ceiling. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R)suggested that the debt ceiling is not the most useful issue on which to make a stand, sayingRepublicans "have two wonderful, clear, and far better fights available in [government funding legislation] and the Sequester bill."
(Read More: US May Hit Debt Ceiling by Mid February: Report)
"The debt ceiling involves the faith and credit of the United States. It can not be held hostage because the crisis impact of failing to pay the government's debts would be immediate, worldwide, and shattering," Gingrich wrote on one of his websites. "If Republicans fall for the debt ceiling trap they will once again be isolated in a corner, identified as negative extremists, and ultimately forced to back down with maximum internal conflict and bitterness among conservatives and Republicans."
Mr. Obama has vowed not to negotiate on the debt ceiling, a shift from 2011, when he and House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio tried to negotiate a large deal before eventually giving way to congressional and White House players.
The trio of issues will come to a head between Feb. 15 and the end of March.
2. Democrats Have the Momentum
In 2011, a newly minted Republican majority in the House set up the debt-ceiling fight as the first and best moment to flex its fiscally conservative might. With the president and House Democrats getting "shellacked" in midterm elections, as Obama put it, the wind was at the back of conservative lawmakers pining for spending cuts.
The debt-ceiling standoff of 2011 ended with more than $1 trillion in spending cuts in the way of caps on future government spending and an undefined $1.2 trillion in further spending reductions that Congress still hasn't found (the sequester). But the solution to that crisis was whatRepublicans wanted – spending cuts.
In 2013, it's Democrats who are on the upswing with a reelected president, a wider Democratic majority in the Senate, and a smaller Republican majority in the House.
More Americans identify as Democrats (47 percent) than Republicans (42 percent), according to a Gallup Poll released Wednesday, breaking an even deadlock in party identification in 2010 and 2011.
And in the most recent confrontation over the "fiscal cliff," not only did the solution come entirely in the form of more than $600 billion in higher taxes, a Democratic demand, but Democrats appear to have won the public-relations battle. A majority of Americans (52 percent) approved of the president's handling of fiscal cliff negotiations, while only 31 percent approved of Speaker Boehner's performance (versus 51 percent disapproving), according to a Washington Post poll.
Moreover, House minority leader Nancy Pelosi (D) of California told reporters Friday that the fiscal cliff deal set the stage for how the sequester should be handled: It shouldn't be all cuts, but half new tax revenue. The comment points to Democrats' confidence heading into this debt-ceiling fight.