After a long and arduous campaign, a newly reelected President Obama confronts his next challenge: binding together a deeply divided nation and turning from campaigning to governing.
The irony is that the most expensive election in American history produced a status-quo outcome. Now the question is whether it will change the status quo that has governed Washington not just during Obama’s presidency but for most of the past decade.
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.
Obama and Romney fought out the campaign as a contest of competing visions, and the voters picked their sides and their candidates with passion Tuesday. Both candidates warned of dire consequences if the other prevailed. Both spent much of their time courting and mobilizing their bases.
As a result, said William Galston of the Brookings Institution, the campaign did little to heal the divisions that have defined politics and the debates in Washington for much of the past decade. “I don’t think there is anything in this election that has pointed a way forward,” he said.
Not that everyone is pessimistic about the future. Both Obama and Romney ended their campaigns with an appeal for bipartisanship. Some Democrats believe that Obama will have the latitude from his base to strike deals with Republicans and that enough Republicans will be chastened by losing the election to cooperate more with him than they have in the first term.
They also believe that Republicans will have learned the lesson from their posture of opposition during Obama’s first term, and already on Tuesday night it was clear that Republicans would be entering a period of reflection and recrimination about what happened and how they should respond. Republicans now must contend with the reality that they lost what seemed like an optimum opportunity to defeat an incumbent president.
Before the votes were counted, some Republicans argued that Romney would have a better chance of changing the status quo in Washington than Obama, that the president’s first term created near-irreparable relations with the Republicans. Former Mississippi governor Haley Barbour said early Tuesday that he hoped Obama would change if reelected, but he said he doubted that would be the case. “I think he’s an ideologue,” he said. “I hope I’m wrong.”
Obama will now have the opportunity to show his true colors, in terms of both his ideological convictions and his ability to produce the kind of cross-party consensus he said he yearns to create.
Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution argued that, given the divisions in the country, campaigns cannot produce mandates. It is too risky, he said, to campaign on a bold agenda for dealing with problems that have resisted resolution for decades.
“In this polarized, highly competitive environment, it’s the best way to kill your proposals, if not lose the election,” he said. “It’s the kind of grubby work that has to be done after the election.”
That is now Obama’s challenge. Since the debt-ceiling debacle, he has been running full time for reelection, and he unleashed a campaign far different in tone and tenor than his first. Now, with another term assured, he will be judged on how well he governs the second time around.