WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama’s victory means that everything he campaigned upon is alive and about to drive the political conversation with his adversaries. Every legacy of his first term is safe and enshrined to history.
Yet big honeymoons don’t come twice and Republicans won’t swoon. If Obama cannot end gridlock, his second term will be reduced to veto threats, empty promises, end runs around Congress and legacy-sealing forays into foreign lands.
Obama will push for higher taxes on the wealthy as a way to shrinking a choking debt and to steer money toward the programs he wants. He will try to land a massive financial deficit-cutting deal with Congress in the coming months and then move on to an immigration overhaul, tax reform and other bipartisan dreams.
He will not have to worry that his health care law will be repealed, or that his Wall Street reforms will be gutted, or that his name will be consigned to the list of one-term presidents who got fired before they could finish. Voters stuck with him because they trusted him more to solve the struggles of their lifetime.
America may not be filled with hope anymore, but it told Mitt Romney to keep his change. And voters sure didn’t shake up the rest of Washington, either.
They put back all the political players who have made the capital dysfunctional to the point of nearly sending the United States of America into default.
“Progress will come in fits and starts,” the president cautioned in his victory speech. “The recognition that we have common hopes and dreams won’t end all the gridlock … or substitute for the painstaking work of building consensus. But that common bond is where we must begin.”
The president likely will be dealing again with a Republican-run House, whose leader, Speaker John Boehner, declared on election night that his party has orders from voters, too: no higher taxes.
Obama will still have his firewall in the Senate, with Democrats likely to hang onto their narrow majority. But they don’t have enough to keep Republicans from bottling up any major legislation with delaying tactics.
So the burden falls on the president to find compromise, not just demand it from the other side.
He won the electoral vote comfortably, but the popular vote showed the nation he leads — split right in half.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell welcomed Obama with both arms folded.
“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.
The vanquished Republican, Romney, tried to set the tone on the way off the stage.
“At a time like this, we can’t risk partisan bickering,” Romney said after a campaign filled with it. “Our leaders have to reach across the aisle to do the people’s work.”
For now, Obama can revel in knowing what he pulled off.
Obama won despite an economy that sucked away much of the nation’s spirit. He won with the highest unemployment rate for any incumbent since the Great Depression. He won even though voters said they thought Romney would be the better choice to end stalemate in Washington.
He won even though a huge majority of voters said they were not better off than they were four years ago — a huge test of survival for a president.
The reason is that voters wanted the president they knew. They believed convincingly that Obama, not Romney, understood their woes of college costs and insurance bills and sleepless nights. Exit polls shows that voters thought far more of them viewed Obama as the voice of the poor and the middle class, and Romney the guy tilting toward the rich.
The suspense was over early because Obama won all over the battleground map, and most crucially in Ohio. That’s where he rode his bailout support for the auto industry to a victory that crushed Romney’s chances.
The voice of the voter came through from 42-year-old Bernadette Hatcher in Indianapolis, who voted after finishing an overnight shift at a warehouse.
“It’s all about what he’s doing,” she said. “No one can correct everything in four years. Especially the economy.”
Formidable and seasoned by life, Romney had in his pocket corporate success and a Massachusetts governor’s term and the lessons of a first failed presidential bid.
But he never broke through as the man who would secure people’s security and their dreams. He was close the whole time.
“I mean, I looked,” said Tamara Johnson of Apex, N.C., a 35-year-old mother of two young children. “I didn’t feel I got the answers I wanted or needed to hear. And that’s why I didn’t sway that way.”
The election was never enthralling, and it was fought for far too long in the shallow moments of negative ads and silly comments.
It seemed like the whole country endured it until the end, when the crowds grew and the candidates reached for their most inspiring words.
“Americans don’t settle. We build, we aspire, we listen to that voice inside that says ‘We can do better,” Romney pleaded toward that end.
Americans agreed. They just wanted Obama to take them there.
Incumbents get no transition, so Obama will be tested immediately.
A “fiscal cliff” of expiring tax cuts and budget cuts looms on Jan 1.
If they kick in, economists warn the economy will tank, again. Obama, at least, won the right to fight the fight on his terms.
“If I’ve won, then I believe that’s a mandate for doing it in a balanced way,” he said before the election — that is, fixing the budget problem by raising taxes on people instead of just cutting spending. Obama is adamant that he will not agree to extend tax cuts for people making above $200,000 or couples with incomes above $250,000.
He had not even been declared the winner before Boehner offered a warning that the House was still in Republican hands.
“With this vote,” Boehner said, “the American people have also made clear that there is no mandate for raising tax rates.”
Obama, never one to lack from confidence, is ready to take that fight to Congress.
In his eyes, he just won it, thanks to the voters.
EDITOR’S NOTE — Ben Feller has covered the presidencies of Barack Obama and George W. Bush.
Follow Ben Feller on Twitter at www.twitter.com/benfellerdc