But there are limits to how much a president can do on his own. Anything big — such as an overhaul of entitlements, the tax system or immigration — will require support from Congress.
How eager either side is to compromise remains a big question, and one that is not likely to be answered until they have time to sort through the election results and figure out why they came out the way they did.
With his GOP majority secure, House Speaker John A. Boehner (Ohio) declared that maintaining control of the House amounted to a mandate.
“For two years, our House majority has been the primary line of defense for the American people against a government that spends too much, taxes too much, certainly borrows too much, when it’s left unchecked,” Boehner said. “With this vote the American people have also made clear that there’s no mandate for raising tax rates.”
Yet Romney’s defeat appears likely to ignite an intense debate among Republicans over whether he failed because he wasn’t true enough to the party’s conservative philosophy or because the GOP as a whole is not inclusive enough for an increasingly diverse nation.
Also likely to be questioned is the influence of the intensely conservative tea party faction.
This was the second election in which Republicans didn’t pick up as many Senate seats as they had expected because they nominated especially conservative candidates — such as Todd Akin in Missouri and Richard Mourdock in Indiana — who alienated moderate voters in GOP-leaning states.
Recent history suggests that losing two presidential elections in a row can force a party to reorient itself, as the Democrats did after 1988 and the Republicans after 1996.
White House strategists think that this time around, it is likely that Republicans will come to the table to hammer out immigration reform. They are less hopeful for common ground on tax reform.
Meanwhile, the other new force in politics — outside money — is here to stay. Super PACs will stay in business and regroup for the legislative battles ahead.
“We aim for the group to be a permanent entity on the center-right,” said Jonathan Collegio, a spokesman for American Crossroads, which spent more than $100 million on behalf of Republican candidates. “The donors see a real value in what we do. We’re able to put a lot of lead on the target.”
American Crossroads expects to be heavily engaged during the lame-duck congressional session, running issue ads against making tax increases part of negotiations to avoid the spending cuts and tax increases known as the fiscal cliff.
To compete, Democrats say Obama will have to retool his political operation.
“The president has to decide whether or not he can utilize his fundraising network to benefit his allies in congressional races,” said Democratic strategist Tad Devine, a veteran of several presidential campaigns. “There’s only one way to convince these guys, and that is that they will be up against serious opposition, and it will be well-funded.