A majority of Americans who headed to the polls Tuesday believed the economy, their top concern, was stuck in the same low gear or getting worse. But in the end, they were unwilling to order a change in Washington’s leadership.
After enduring more than $2 billion in advertising and relentless campaigning, voters ended the election debate where it started two years ago: re-electing President Barack Obama and dividing control of Congress. And that will make the job of governing in a gridlocked Washington all the more challenging during the next two years.
The president won four more years on the strength of narrow wins in several critical swing states like Ohio, Virginia, Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa, Nevada and Colorado. But he lost some of the popular support he enjoyed in 2008 and was put on notice that Americans are wary about the economy, the deficit and the size of government.
In his acceptance speech early Wednesday morning, Obama vowed to return to Washington "more determined" to compromise but cognizant of the magnitude of the challenge of governing a deeply divided nation.
"We will disagree, sometimes fiercely, about how to get there. As it has for more than two centuries, progress will come in fits and starts. It's not always a straight line. It's not always a smooth path," he said. "By itself, the recognition that we have common hopes and dreams won't end all the gridlock or solve all our problems or substitute for the painstaking work of building consensus and making the difficult compromises needed to move this country forward.
On the flip side, Republicans could savor the consolation of retaining control of the House of Representatives. But they also learned painfully about the gaps they face with women and Hispanics, the dangers of being viewed as extremist and intemperate and the limitations of the once-magical Tea Party movement.
Republicans held out their hand, cautiously, while getting in the first jibes of the post-election era. "It's time for the president to propose solutions that actually have a chance of passing the Republican-controlled House, and deliver in a way that he did not in his first four years in office," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell declared.
Both parties have little time to adjust before the realities of governing strike anew. The government is poised to run out of money at year’s end when its debt ceiling is reached, triggering automatic spending cuts that aren’t popular in either party.
And a gridlocked Washington left most of the big unresolved issues to be addressed after the election – from renewing federal support for clean energy and farmers to determining the future size of the military and which tax cuts get extended.
The challenge going forward is whether Obama can forge bipartisan consensus. He’ll get his first chance with a lame-duck Congress in late November or December, before many aspects of the summer 2011 debt deal will kick in. Tax cuts, the farm bill and the fiscal cliff are at the top of the unsettled agenda.
And in 2013, the president faces more of the same challenge: navigating a structure in Washington prone to partisan gridlock while trying to implement his agenda. Absent bipartisan compromise, the president’s other tools for policy advancement will be his executive powers and the courts.
In the meantime, it will take days for pundits, politicians and media to fully analyze the messages and contradictions of a clearly unsettled electorate.
The top lines are clear: a majority of Americans remains frustrated with the lagging economy but were willing to give Obama a second chance rather than bet on Romney. And as a whole, the nation is fairly evenly divided, especially on the role that government should play going forward.
On the flip side, Republicans face a period of inflection and adjustment like they did after the 1964 and 1992 elections. The GOP failed to defeat a president facing chronic high unemployment and voter unrest, and it must find a way to shed extremist perceptions and attract independents before 2014.
A new national leader will likely emerge from among a new generation of voices that includes Chris Christie, Paul Ryan, Susanna Martinez, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio. And Republicans will have to assess the impact of the Tea Party, which gave them stunning election victories in 2010 but lost key races in Indiana, Missouri and elsewhere in 2012.
Intemperate comments that alienated women voters will inevitably raise questions about the quality of the GOP’s candidate lineup. Likewise, the GOP will have to re-evaluate its approach to immigration after losing by large numbers among Hispanics and seeing 63 percent of Americans declare illegal immigrants should have a path to citizenship.
Republicans also face the prospect in 2013 of being forced to pick between two of its core values: reducing the deficit or holding the line on no new taxes.
As for the 65-year-old Romney, his time in politics has passed, a transitional figure in what could become a generational shift inside the GOP. His farewell was gracious and short: a brief call congratulating the president and a public expression of support. "This is a time of great challenges for America, and I pray the president will be successful in guiding our nation," Romney said.
The bunting is being folded away for the next election, the confetti swept from the floors and the memory of all those nasty attacks ads relinquished. Voters have offered a most compelling challenge: telling the same leaders that gave us gridlock the last four years to work it out in the next four.