Obama has his lease renewed but the real work lies ahead

His lease renewed in trying economic times, President Barack Obama claimed a second term from an incredibly divided electorate and immediately braced for daunting challenges and progress that comes only in fits and starts.

Obama has his lease renewed but the real work lies ahead

“We have fought our way back and we know in our hearts that for the United States of America, the best is yet to come,” he said.

The same voters who gave Obama another four years also elected a divided Congress, re-upping the dynamic that has made it so hard for the president to advance his agenda. Democrats retained control of the Senate; Republicans renewed their majority in the House.

It was a sweet victory for Obama, but nothing like the jubilant celebration of four years earlier, when his hope-and-change election as the nation’s first black president captivated the world. This time, Obama ground out his win with a stay-the-course pitch that essentially boiled down to a plea for more time to make things right and a hope that Congress will be more accommodating than in the past.

The vanquished Republican, Mitt Romney, tried to set a more conciliatory tone on the way off the stage. “At a time like this, we can’t risk partisan bickering,” he said after a campaign filled with it. “Our leaders have to reach across the aisle to do the people’s work.”

House speaker John Boehner spoke of a dual mandate, saying: “If there is a mandate, it is a mandate for both parties to find common ground and take steps together to help our economy grow and create jobs.”

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell had a more harsh assessment. “The voters have not endorsed the failures or excesses of the president’s first term,” he said. “They have simply given him more time to finish the job they asked him to do together”, with a balanced Congress.

Obama claimed a commanding electoral mandate — at least 303 electoral votes to 206 for Romney — and had a near-sweep of the nine most hotly contested battleground states.

But the close breakdown in the popular vote showed Americans’ differences over how best to meet the nation’s challenges. With more than 90% of precincts reporting, the popular vote went 50% for Obama to 48.4% for Romney, the businessman-turned-politician who had argued that Obama had failed to turn around the economy and said it was time for a new approach keyed to lower taxes and a less intrusive government.

Obama’s re-election assured certainty on some fronts: His signature health- care overhaul will endure, as will the Wall St reforms enacted after the economic meltdown. The drawdown of troops in Afghanistan will continue apace. And with an aging Supreme Court, the president is likely to have at least one more nomination to the high court.

The challenges immediately ahead are all too familiar: an economy still baby-stepping its way toward full health, 23m Americans out of work or in search of better jobs, civil war in Syria, an ominous standoff over Iran’s nuclear programme, and more. Sharp differences with Republicans in Congress on taxes, spending, deficit reduction, immigration and more await.

And even before Obama gets to his second inaugural on Jan 20, he must grapple with the threatened “fiscal cliff” — a combination of automatic tax increases and steep across-the-board spending cuts that are set to take effect in January if Washington doesn’t quickly come up with a work- around budget deal. Economists have warned the economy could tip back into recession without a deal.

Despite long lines at polls in many places, turnout overall looked to be down from four years ago. The president’s victory speech — he’d written a concession, too, just in case — reflected the realities of the rough road ahead. “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.

“But that common bond is where we must begin. Our economy is recovering. A decade of war is ending. A long campaign is now over, and whether I earned your vote or not, I have listened to you, I have learned from you and you have made me a better president.”

He said he hoped to meet with Romney and discuss how they can work together. They may have battled fiercely, he said, “but it’s only because we love this country deeply”.

Romney’s short concession was a gracious end note after a gruelling campaign. He wished the president’s family well and told subdued supporters in Boston: “I so wish that I had been able to fulfil your hopes to lead the country in a different direction, but the nation chose another leader and so Ann and I join with you to earnestly pray for him and for this great nation.”

Obama’s re-election was a remarkable achievement given that Americans are anything but enthusiastic about the state they’re in: Only about 4 in 10 voters believe the economy is getting better, just one quarter thought they’re better off financially than four years ago, and a little more than half think the country is on the wrong track, exit polls showed.

But even now, four years after George W Bush left, voters were more likely to blame him than Obama for the fix they’re in.

From the beginning, Obama had an easier path than Romney to the 270 electoral votes needed for victory. The most expensive campaign in history was targeted at people in nine battleground states that held the key to victory, and the two sides drenched voters there with more than 1m ads, most of them negative.

Obama claimed at least seven of the battleground states, most notably Ohio, the Ground Zero of campaign 2012. He also got Iowa, New Hampshire, Colorado, Nevada, Virginia, and Wisconsin, and he was ahead in Florida. Romney got North Carolina. Overall, Obama won 25 states and the District of Columbia and was leading in too-close-to-call Florida. Romney won 24 states.

It was a more measured victory than four years ago, when Obama claimed 365 electoral votes to McCain’s 173, winning with 53% of the popular vote. Obama was judged by 53% of voters to be more in touch with people like them. More good news for him: Six in 10 voters said taxes should be increased.

Obama’s list of promises to keep includes many holdovers he was unable to deliver on in his first term: rolling back tax cuts for upper-income people, immigration reform, reducing federal deficits, and more.

A second term is sure to produce turnover in his cabinet: treasury secretary Timothy Geithner has made it clear he wants to leave at the end of Obama’s first term but is expected to remain in the post until a successor is confirmed. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Obama’s rival for the presidency four years ago, is ready to leave too. Defence Secretary Leon Panetta isn’t expected to stay on.

To the end, the race was a nail-biter. About 1 in 10 voters said they’d only settled on their choice within the last few days or even on Election Day.

In an election offering sharply different views on the role of government, voters ultimately narrowly tilted toward Obama’s approach.

Notwithstanding his victory, Obama will lead a nation with plenty of people who were ready for a change.

“The last four years have been crap,” said 73-year-old Marvin Cleveland, a Romney supporter in Roseville, Minnesota. “Let’s try something else.”

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