President Obama burnished his historic legacy by winning a decisive electoral victory – sweeping most of the battleground states – despite high unemployment, sluggish economic growth, and a bitterly partisan atmosphere.
The reelection of America’s first black president shows that Mr. Obama’s triumph four years ago was not a fluke. Not only did Obama emerge the undisputed victor late Tuesday over Republican challenger Mitt Romney, albeit with a smaller popular-vote margin than in 2008, he also appears to have pulled along with him a larger majority in the Senate. Despite predictions of diminished turnout by Obama’s core constituencies – blacks, Hispanics, young voters, and women – they delivered again for both the president and the Democratic Party.
Still, 2012 was a markedly different election. Gone is the optimistic tone of 2008. The road ahead is paved with tough choices, amid worsening fiscal conditions. And the scorched-earth quality of the campaign, fueled by unprecedented spending by the campaigns, the parties, and outside groups, has left many Americans gasping for air.
The continuation of the status quo – Democratic president, Democratic Senate, Republican House – foretells more gridlock. And by not offering a detailed prescription for addressing the nation’s unsustainable deficits, particularly on entitlement programs, Obama enters a second term without a clear mandate for action.
In his victory speech, Obama sought to provide a moment of lift at the end of a grueling campaign.
"The task of perfecting our Union moves forward,” the president told his supporters at McCormick Place in Chicago. “It moves forward because of you. It moves forward because you reaffirmed the spirit that has triumphed over war and depression, the spirit that has lifted this country from the depths of despair to the great heights of hope.”
Major news outlets had called the election for Obama at about 11:20 p.m. Tuesday, but Mr. Romney delayed conceding until early Wednesday morning, when his advisers had determined there was no credible way to keep fighting, even as Florida remained too close to call with Obama slightly ahead. The president won all the other states he had taken in 2008, except Indiana and North Carolina. If Obama’s lead in Florida holds, he will have won the Electoral College 332 to 206.
In what was likely his final moment in the national spotlight, Romney wished Obama well.
“This is a time of great challenges for America, and I pray that the president will be successful in guiding our nation,” Romney told his supporters in Boston.
But the outlook for a better atmosphere in Washington is uncertain at best.
Before Tuesday, Obama had suggested that his reelection would change the dynamic in Washington – that the people will have spoken, and that the Republicans would have to take heed. But the top Republican in Washington, House Speaker John Boehner, wasted no time Tuesday night in warning Obama that he and the Democrats are still not the only game in town.
“For two years, our majority in the House has been the primary line of defense for the American people against a government that spends too much, taxes too much, and borrows too much when left unchecked,” Mr. Boehner said.
In the Senate, where Democrats appear poised to build on their 53-to-47 majority, the threat of Republican filibusters will continue. Sixty votes are required to halt a filibuster.
But by maintaining the status quo, Obama is guaranteed some significant advantages. The Republican pledge to repeal, or at least scale back, the signature legislative accomplishment of his first term – health-care reform – has now been defanged. The implementation of “Obamacare” in 2014 will continue. And in the likely event of at least one and possibly two or three vacancies on the US Supreme Court during the next four years, the president’s chances are solid of gaining confirmation of a nominee so long as the potential justice is not deemed too far to the left.
Obama may also gain some political breathing room as a demoralized Republican Party looks inward. Romney’s massive deficit among Latino voters – the nation’s largest minority group – is likely to force a rethinking of how Republicans discuss the immigration issue, and could even pave the way for a compromise on comprehensive immigration reform. Obama had failed to deliver on the promise of reform in his first term, to the disappointment of Latino supporters. But Romney still scored a dismal 29 percent among Latinos, according to exit polls.
Republicans also suffered from a gender gap that has dogged their presidential nominees in every election since 1980. Some Republicans’ harsh rhetoric toward women – particularly, on the issue of rape – damaged the party’s image and cost them seats in the House (Rep. Joe Walsh of Illinois) and Senate (Todd Akin of Missouri and Richard Mourdock of Indiana).
Democrats also fielded a strong slate of female Senate candidates. Elizabeth Warren defeated Sen. Scott Brown (R) of Massachusetts to take back the seat long held by the late Sen. Edward "Ted" Kennedy (D). Tammy Baldwin won the open Senate seat in Wisconsin. Democratic women also won in Hawaii, New York, Missouri, California, Michigan, and Minnesota.
In solidly Republican North Dakota, a strong campaign by Democrat Heidi Heitkamp put her slightly ahead of Republican Rick Berg, though the race was too close to call by Wednesday morning. But even without Ms. Heitkamp, the next Congress will have at least 19 women senators, the most in history.
Even before the results were in Tuesday, Republicans spoke of the challenges ahead for their party.
“Win, lose, or draw, there will be a big fight for the heart and soul of the party,” said Saul Anuzis, former chairman of the Michigan Republican Party and a two-time contender for the chairmanship of the Republican National Committee.
“We face big demographic challenges,” he added. “We can’t be the party of old white men.”