After an intensely negative campaign in which both parties defined themselves by who they were not and where they would not compromise, neither can claim that voters gave them a mandate to actually accomplish anything.
But as they return to Washington and a set of immediate challenges, starting with the year-end “fiscal cliff,” the election has given them a new understanding of what they are up against.
Obama won not by presenting a positive and detailed agenda but by convincing voters that Mitt Romney and the GOP were unacceptable. If he hopes to achieve anything significant in his final term in office, the president must first forge the kind of national sense of purpose that the election failed to provide.
“The role of the president is to build a consensus in America, and that’s the way you build a consensus in Washington,” said Ken Duberstein, a Republican lobbyist who was White House chief of staff during Ronald Reagan’s second term.
Meanwhile, Republicans have squandered what once looked like a promising opportunity to regain both the White House and the Senate. Amid the recriminations, they will be grappling with both the tensions within their party and the outside demographic forces — such as the growing political power of Hispanics — that are shrinking their political base.
And for both Democrats and Republicans, there will come a reckoning with a new political system in which outside money, most of it ideologically driven and averse to compromise, has arisen as a potent force outside the traditional party structure.
Obama has told aides that he plans to spend more time outside Washington during the next four years.
“One thing he does not want to do in his second term is get caught in the bubble,” one White House official said. Like others who were leery of discussing Obama’s second-term plans before the balloting was done, he agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity.
“I think that I’ve learned some lessons over the last four years,” Obama said at a September forum in Florida. “And the most important lesson I’ve learned is that you can’t change Washington from the inside. You can only change it from the outside.”
Most instructive to the president, according to White House aides, was the contrast between his failure to achieve a “grand bargain” during the debt-ceiling crisis in the summer of 2011 and his success several months later in forcing Republicans to extend a payroll tax cut for 160 million Americans.
In the earlier effort, Obama invested his energies in negotiating with congressional leaders; in the latter, he prevailed by taking his case to the country.