September 25, 2014 6:02 AM EDT

This issue explores Salvage operations–two immensely consequential U.S. institutions that have been written off by many as unfixable: the Congress of the United States and General Motors. Of the nation’s legislative body, Michael Grunwald writes a deeply discouraging tale: Congress is gridlocked, and on the rare occasions it actually sits in session, it remains largely inert. But that, he argues, is because both sides won when it comes to their most cherished issues: the cradle-to-grave social safety net on the left and tax and spending cuts on the right. “The gridlocked status quo isn’t optimal,” he says, “but as long as it doesn’t lead to a debt default or some other dumb catastrophe, it’s not a worst-case scenario, either.” The real question is what an agenda for the future would look like and which candidates have the skills to sell it.

The story at General Motors is quite different, as Rana Foroohar lays it out in her profile of CEO Mary Barra. Battered by safety scandals and facing a “change or die” challenge, Barra must transform a culture that even its own minders say is allergic to risk, accountability or innovation. Spending time with Barra as she went about her mission, Rana was struck by how much she talked about her team. “You would think that would be obvious, but many CEOs are actually lone wolves. They might be really smart, tough, decisive people, but ultimately what they do is a lot about their own ego,” Rana observes. But Barra was always quick to credit others for their part in accomplishments that were largely her doing. “I think that’s one of the reasons her people are so devoted to her,” Rana adds. “You can really feel it from them, and I have been doing this long enough to know when it’s fake.”

Nancy Gibbs, EDITOR

This appears in the October 06, 2014 issue of TIME.

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