Obama will confront a daunting agenda, from an economy that is still far less robust than he had promised it would be to the looming problem of debt, deficits and the growth of federal entitlement programs that produced an ugly battle during his first term. The “fiscal cliff” looms in December, which either will force action and agreement or define a new landscape of disagreement.
Tuesday’s election produced an uncertain mandate, although Obama will attempt to claim one. Obama offered a plan for the future, but not one that deals directly with some of the problems he will have to confront immediately. His campaign was geared more to defining and attacking opponent Mitt Romney than creating a mandate for a second term.
It will now be left to him to create a true mandate for his agenda and then through leadership that combines compromise with conviction, produce a political consensus in Congress and the country to put that agenda into place. There was enough in the exit polls to suggest that voters remain in sharp disagreement over the way forward, and in many cases the voters hold contradictory views about how to get there.
Obama found the coalitions he needed, almost state by state, to win reelection. In Ohio, he was aided by the auto bailout and some extra votes from working-class white voters. In other states, Latinos helped power him to victory. Elsewhere, it was women who played a critical role. But while Obama won a series of closely contested battleground states, the campaign was ending with Americans as polarized as they were when it began nearly two years ago.
Nationally, voters were split along racial, cultural and economic lines, and the divisions the winner will confront were evident from the national exit polls.
Six in 10 voters said Tuesday that the economy was the most important issue. Romney was winning a narrow majority of those voters. Asked to cite the biggest economic problems, four in 10 said unemployment. Obama was winning among those voters. Another four in 10 said rising prices. Obama and Romney were splitting those voters.
The president’s health-care plan was another fault line. Almost half the voters said they favored its repeal, in whole or in part, and more than eight in 10 of them backed Romney. But 94 percent of those who said the plan should be expanded or kept as is supported Obama.
Voters were evenly divided on which candidate they trusted to deal with the deficit. Those who said Romney backed his candidacy by 95 percent to 3 percent. Those who cited Obama backed him 98 to 1.
A majority of voters said government is doing too many things, and three-quarters of them backed Romney. The 43 percent who said government should do more to solve problems split 81 to 17 for Obama.