The election sorted out winners and losers, but it left intact a polarized governing structure in Washington that has been unable to produce much more than gridlock over the past couple of years.
President Obama appeared on track to become the first president in modern history to be reelected with a smaller share of the vote than he got in his first bid. And while voters opted to keep Congress in the same hands as the past two years, congressional approval ratings are at near-record lows.
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.
He also plans to be more aggressive in taking actions that do not require congressional approval, as he has done during the past year with an initiative that the White House has branded “We Can’t Wait.” Among them have been programs to hire veterans, assist homeowners in refinancing their mortgages and give waivers to states seeking to boost education standards.
“He does think that’s going to be the new normal,” another White House aide said.
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.