“You made your voice heard,” Obama said in his acceptance speech, signaling that he believes the bulk of the country is behind his policies. It’s a sticking point for House Republicans, sure to balk at that.
The same voters who gave Obama four more years in office also elected a divided Congress, sticking with the dynamic that has made it so hard for the president to advance his agenda. Democrats retained control of the Senate; Republicans kept their House majority.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, spoke of a dual mandate. “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,” he said.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky had a more harsh assessment.
“The voters have not endorsed the failures or excesses of the president’s first term,” McConnell said. “They have simply given him more time to finish the job they asked him to do together” with a balanced Congress.
Obama’s more narrow victory was nothing like the jubilant celebration in 2008, when his hope-and-change election as the nation’s first black president captivated the world. This time, Obama ground it out 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.
Even his victory party was more subdued. His campaign said Wednesday that 20,000 people came to hear his speech in downtown Chicago, compared with 200,000 four years ago.
The most pressing challenges immediately ahead for the 44th president are all too familiar: an economy still baby-stepping its way toward full health; 23 million people out of work or in search of better jobs; civil war in Syria; a menacing standoff over Iran’s nuclear program.
Sharp differences with Republicans in Congress on taxes, spending, deficit reduction, immigration and more await. While Republicans control the House, Democrats have at least 53 votes in the Senate and Republicans 45. One newly elected independent isn’t saying which party he’ll side with, and North Dakota’s race was not yet called.
Obama’s list of promises to keep includes many holdovers he was unable to deliver on in his first term, such as rolling back tax cuts for upper-income people, overhauling immigration policy and reducing federal deficits. Six in 10 voters said in exit polls that taxes should be increased, and nearly half of voters said taxes should be increased on incomes over $250,000, as Obama has called for.
“It’s very clear from the exit polling that a majority of Americans recognize that we need to share responsibility for reducing the deficit,” Maryland Rep. Chris Van Hollen, the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee, told CNN. “That means asking higher-income earners to contribute more to reducing the deficit.”
But Sara Taylor Fagen, who served as political director in President George W. Bush’s second term, warned the current White House to pay heed to the closely divided electorate, a lesson her party learned after 2004. With 98 percent of precincts reporting, Obama had 50 percent to 48 percent for Romney.
“It’ll be interesting if the Obama team misinterprets the size of their victory,” Fagen said. “I think if you look back at history, we pushed Social Security and the Congress wasn’t ready for that and wasn’t going to do it. And had President Bush gone after immigration, we may be sitting in a very different position as a party.”
Obama predicted in the waning days of the campaign that his victory would motivate Republicans to make a deal on immigration policy next year to make up for having “so alienated the fastest-growing demographic group in the country, the Latino community.”
Former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour agreed that a lesson of 2012 is for his Republican Party to change the party’s approach on immigration.
“Republicans say, ‘We don’t want to reward people for breaking the law,”’ Barbour told CBS. “The way we need to look at it is, how are we going to grow the American economy and where does our immigration policy fit into that?”
Even before Obama gets to his second inaugural on Jan. 20, he must deal with the threatened “fiscal cliff.” A combination of automatic tax increases and steep across-the-board spending cuts are set to take effect in January if Washington doesn’t quickly reach a budget deal. Experts have warned that the economy could tip back into recession without an agreement.
Newly elected Democrats signaled they want compromise to avoid the fiscal cliff.